California witnessed its first statewide race featuring contenders from the same political party but listening to campaign consultants for Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez at a Friday forum presented by the USC’s Schwarzenegger Institute lessons that might translate to future similar contests—say the 2018 governor’s race—may be hard to draw. In many ways, the senate race was a unique contest.
Sanchez strategist Bill Carrick and Harris consultant Sean Clegg agreed the senate race was not traditional in a number of ways. News coverage on the senate race was skimpy and fund raising was not as expected. Carrick said a Democrat versus Democrat race did not energize many donors of Democratic campaigns. They knew a Democrat would win the seat so fundraisers worked on senate races in other states or raised funds for Hillary Clinton, Carrick said.
Harris took an early lead over Sanchez and never looked back. According to Clegg, Harris hoped to face a Republican in the General Election. However, surveys during the primary election indicated that none of the Republicans in the race were viable—none polling more than 8%. The top two Democrats were also assisted by circumstances surrounding the primary election in June: a competitive Democratic presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders, all Republican presidential candidates opposing Trump dropping out before California’s primary, and the higher overall Democratic turnout.
Speculation that Sanchez would capture Republican votes by being portrayed as the more conservative candidate didn’t happen. Clegg said that Harris won 25 of the 26 majority Republican counties in the state. Carrick said he never expected Republicans would rally to Sanchez. Besides, he said, establishment Republicans speaking up for Sanchez didn’t indicate the grass roots would follow.
That was especially true in this election when grass roots supporters often vilified the establishment.
Partisanship did occur in this race, Carrick said. Harris secured the endorsement of the California Democratic Party. The endorsement becomes particularly influential when two candidates come from the same party. Carrick also argued that the labor movement is alive and well in party endorsement fights.
That issue was confirmed by surveys made during the election by academics that followed the race. At the Schwarzenegger Institute event, professors reported that when strong Democrats heard of a candidate’s union endorsement poll numbers increased 7.8%. However, when other voters heard of the union endorsements poll numbers dropped 5.6%.
If reformers really want to take partisanship out of statewide contests they might look at making all offices non-partisan, modeled after local government elections in California.
A 2018 governor’s race will not duplicate the circumstances surrounding this senate contest. The governor’s race will be the highlight of the 2018 election—no presidential competition for voters’ interest—so the governor’s race will get adequate attention from the media and political donors. Furthermore, with a requirement of the Democratic Party for 60% support of delegates to achieve the party endorsement and a multi candidate field, an endorsement is unlikely to happen.