Thomas Elias: Senate primary may produce top-two showcase
You can tell by the television ratings that few are interested in this contest: The two debates involving five candidates with the highest poll ratings among almost three-dozen aspirants to replace the retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer drew some of the smallest audiences of any political gabfests this year.
One potential result could be the first really big showcase for the Top Two primary system.
If there’s one thing the presidential race demonstrates, it’s that politics are entertaining when charismatic candidates with media skills emerge, like longtime reality TV star Donald Trump. All debates he’s done were ratings bonanzas for the cable networks showing them. The same for verbal clashes involving Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders on the Democratic side.
This contrasts starkly with the California senatorial debates, which suits the longtime leader in the Senate race just fine. State Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat who polled 27 percent of the likely primary vote when she declared for office more than a year ago, managed just a 2 percent gain to 29 percent in a Survey USA poll in early May, after her first encounter with rivals.
Meanwhile, Orange County Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez was up from 8 points in the initial survey to 18 in the latest. Taken together, the three Republicans in the race — software entrepreneur Ron Unz and former GOP state chairmen George (Duf) Sundheim and Tom Del Becarro, pulled a mere 25 percent. Unless one or two of them drops out very soon, November could see its first California statewide race matching two persons from one party, a landmark made possible by the Top Two, or Jungle, primary system adopted via Proposition 14 in 2010.
The main difference between the early May polling and last year’s was that undecided voters dropped to an abnormally high 30 percent or so from the ultra-high previous level of 48 percent. Like the TV ratings, these numbers show the race arouses little interest, perhaps because of the general assumption it will go to a Democrat in the end, ho-hum.
For Harris, this means she has no need to spend much on maintaining her frontrunner status. Her state job — California government’s second most powerful elected office — makes her prominent enough that none of her challengers doubts she’ll make it to November.
No one is quite so sure about Sanchez, running second in all surveys. One seeming outlier of a poll in mid-May had Sanchez with a mere 8 percent, just ahead of Unz, the purported Republican leader. But the methodology of that poll was not disclosed and its finding is so different from contemporaneous surveys that not many take it seriously.
Should Sanchez make the runoff, this will soon cease being a ho-hummer. Her presence would set up the very kind of matchup Top Two intends: Two people from the same party, each far more appealing to voters in general than any candidate from the rival major party. But two people with vast contrasts in style, support and substance.
Harris at times has demonstrated toughness as attorney general, as when she refused to go along with a preliminary national settlement of cases stemming from the mortgage crisis of 2008-2012 and won California victims of the banking scam far more than they’d have gotten under the original settlement.
Sanchez, meanwhile, tells it exactly as she sees it, evidenced by her statement early this year that between 5 percent and 20 percent of Muslims worldwide want an ISIS-style caliphate to rule everywhere. Refusing to back down in the face of Islamophobia charges, Sanchez said her assessment is backed by both congressional testimony and conversations with Muslim leaders she has met as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Sanchez also is less adamant on gun controls than Harris. And her base of support would be both among Latinos and in Southern California, while Harris would draw her strongest support in the Bay Area, where she was formerly district attorney of San Francisco.
Sanchez, then, might give Republican voters an alternative, a place to go if their party mates are eliminated, always a stated aim of Top Two. This could produce a more moderate, possibly even more conservative senator than California has seen in a generation.
So while this race has not yet excited many, stay tuned and it just might.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net
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