The Strategy Behind Electing the First Latino US Senator in California

FEB. 5, 2015 — After an immediate flurry of electoral activity dominated California politics once Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) announced her retirement, the open Senate race has slow-tracked, but its current, more passive status will soon change.

The California Latino Legislative Caucus is an organization comprised of Latino state legislators. This past week, they took the unusual step of sponsoring a political poll to test the viability of a single Latino candidate in the open Senate field. Currently, Attorney General Kamala Harris, an African American, has announced her candidacy and is quickly putting together a united northern California coalition. But, Hispanics want their own candidate and their leaders believe uniting behind one individual could carry that person to victory in November of 2016.

This week, the organization’s leadership released the results of their Garin Hart Yang Research poll (Jan. 27-29; 600 CA registered voters). Conclusion: Harris begins the campaign as the top Democrat, but she’s nowhere near a cinch to win the seat.

Recalling that California has adopted a jungle primary format where the top two finishers, regardless of political party affiliation, move to the general election the group hopes Hispanic voters will unite to ensure that one Latino candidate advances, hopefully from their perspective, against a Republican. The poll suggests this could happen, but would not today.

Leading the aggregate field is not Harris, but Fresno Republican Mayor Ashley Swearingen with 31 percent. Because the Democratic vote is likely to be split among several candidates, it would not be surprising to see a Republican finish first in the June qualifying election despite being badly outnumbered throughout the Golden State. Once the general election Democratic voters unite behind one candidate, any preliminary Republican victory hopes would likely dissipate very quickly.

Swearingen, who just lost a race for state controller (46-54 percent), has not committed to running for the Senate. Losing the statewide vote by eight points under a mid-term turnout model suggests that her prospects in a presidential year would be worse given California’s electoral history post-Ronald Reagan.

Following Swearingen in the GHY poll is Harris at 28 percent. Former Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa (D), commonly viewed as eventually becoming a Senate candidate and the only Latino tested in this poll, places third, but a full 10 percentage points behind Harris. Fourth, with just four percent, is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA-28). These results occur despite the fact that Villaraigosa’s name identification (66 percent) is actually four points higher than Harris’.

The Latino Caucus leaders’ goal in commissioning this poll and releasing its results is to drive home the point to Hispanic leaders and voters throughout California that they have the numbers to win a statewide campaign if united behind just one candidate. Also considering running are representatives Loretta Sanchez (D-CA-46) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA-34), along with Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D). Not only are all Latino, but each hails from southern California.

The California Senate race is already turning into a battle between the north and south. Though southern California holds three-fifths of the state’s population, all of the major statewide office holders are from the north. Uniting the southern California vote, and the state’s Hispanics, would certainly spell victory for a chosen contender.

Today, this scenario would not occur because there are too many potential candidates. If it does develop, the sheer numbers of such a southern/Hispanic coalition would likely be too much for Harris, or any northern California candidate, to overcome.

Will California elect its first Latino US senator? The voting numbers certainly support this outcome as a viable possibility, but will internal party politics allow such a conclusion? The latter is the more interesting question.

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