In Senate Race, Sanchez Needs to Sacrifice Charisma to Catch Harris

Dan Schnur
Professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies

Kamala Harris might not be the luckiest politician in America. But it’s starting to seem that way.

After Barbara Boxer announced her retirement earlier this year, Harris moved quickly to assert her primacy over what seemed likely to become a large and sprawling field of candidates for Boxer’s seat. Her early strength and support from Democratic donors and activists served to discourage most of her party’s most formidable prospective opponents from challenging her.

Even Republicans, whose status in the state can most diplomatically be described as a long-term rebuilding project, have not been able to recruit a top-tier candidate. Mayors Kevin Faulconer of San Diego and Ashley Swearingen on Fresno would have been decided underdogs, as would previous GOP statewide candidates like Neel Kashkari and Steve Poizner. All seem content to wait for a less daunting challenge.

Early last month, it appeared that Harris’ good fortune might not be infinite. Representative Loretta Sanchez – a 10-term member of Congress from Orange County and a longtime favorite of state Latino activists – announced her plans to enter the race, providing Harris with her first Democratic opponent. But within two days of her launch, Sanchez committed a major gaffe when she used a racially offensive gesture to characterize Native Americans. All Harris had to do was pronounce Sanchez’ insult as “shocking” – and get out of the way.

By the following morning, Sanchez had apologized for her mistake, but the damage had already been done. What could have been a splashy rollout for her candidacy was instead overshadowed by an unnecessary distraction.

While the Sanchez campaign is off to a less-than-auspicious start, there’s no reason that this blunder should be fatal to her candidacy. Like Hillary Clinton’s recent struggles to answer questions about her family’s charitable foundation, and like Jeb Bush’s difficulty in explaining his position on the Iraq War, this particular Sanchez blunder is unlikely to be remembered by voters over a year from now.

But even as the details of the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising practices are forgotten, Hillary will continue to confront voters’ doubts about her and her husband’s honesty. For his part, Jeb’s relationship with his brother’s presidency will be a persistent difficulty throughout the campaign. And while this instance of Sanchez‘s thoughtlessness will disappear from the public consciousness as time passes, her habit of stream-of-consciousness campaigning before will pose an ongoing challenge for her.

An even greater hurdle for Sanchez going forward than her Ready-Fire-Aim approach to public speaking is the relatively unreliable nature of her political support base. While Southern California is home to a large majority of the state’s voters, Bay Area Democrats tend to turn out in much larger numbers in primary elections than their SoCal counterparts. Similarly, while Sanchez begins the campaign with a natural advantage among Hispanic-Americans, voters from Latino communities are much less likely to participate in primary elections as well.

Sanchez’s challenge will be to find a way to motivate her geographic and demographic base to vote in numbers far greater than has been in the case in past elections. The possible candidacy of fellow Congressman Xavier Becerra, who would split both of those constituencies with Sanchez, makes this an even steeper hill to climb.

Unlike Harris, who has served only in state and local office, Sanchez’s work in Washington gives her foreign policy and national security credentials that could benefit her on the current political landscape. But Congress suffers from historically low approval ratings with state voters, and a candidate who has spent almost two decades on Capitol Hill may have a difficult time convincing Californians that she is the most likely agent of change.

This is a fine line for Sanchez to walk. Her freewheeling style of campaigning has been her hallmark for almost twenty years and it may be her best bet to light a fire under her most likely supporters. But it’s not an ideal approach to demonstrate that she possesses the gravitas necessary to handle the high-stakes security and defense issues she intends to emphasize in the campaign. And while Sanchez has more than enough time to overcome her awkward launch, voters, activists and donors will not respond favorably to additional “war cry” moments.

From this point forward, Sanchez will be judged by a double standard. When another candidate makes an off-the-cuff comment that is heard other than how it was intended, a quick apology will make the error disappear almost immediately. But like questions of Clinton’s fundraising and Bush’s family, any future Sanchez slip-up will become the subject of unsympathetic analysis, relentless second-guessing and severe criticism.

That may not be entirely fair. But it’s the way that politics works. So Sanchez may want to be more cautious in the weeks and months ahead, even if it means sacrificing some of her trademark charisma along the way.

Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. When he ran for office last year, reining in his trademark charisma did him no good at all.

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