Loretta Sanchez is trying to convince voters that she’s the candidate most prepared to take over for Barbara Boxer, that she’s an expert after 19 years in Congress on matters of national security and perfectly positioned to take on domestic priorities in the Senate.
So why does she keep getting in her own way?
The race to replace Boxer has been something of a snore, with Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris raising money behind the scenes and doing very little in the way of public appearances. Sanchez, the Orange County Democrat, has spent much of her time back in Washington, working her day job.
But Sanchez has burst into the public eye twice, and not in a good way. Days after entering the race last spring, she overshadowed her own appearance at the state Democratic convention by miming a war whoop to refer to Native Americans. And this month she was explaining herself again when, in the midst of a political backlash after the San Bernardino terror slayings, she said that up to 20% of Muslims supported violence against the West.
She spent much of the next few days clarifying: She’d been talking about Muslims worldwide, she didn’t mean that all would act violently themselves, the percentage estimate came from analysts, not her.
Even if all that was true, it raised anew the question: Isn’t it tough enough to run against Harris, the moneyed Democratic front-runner, without also running against yourself?
The weak link in the Senate race so far is the most basic element: the candidates. Harris has been hit by news stories reporting on her campaign spending on high-end hotels, expensive flights and a raft of campaign consultants. As of the end of September, she had spent 40% of the nearly $6 million she had raised, and apparently as a result has shaken up her campaign.
Sanchez has been running a leaner, underdog operation — of necessity, since she had raised less than $2 million. That makes it all the more important that she play error-free ball.
But that is not Sanchez, known more for her cat-friendly Christmas cards than what she brags about on the campaign trail: bringing millions back to her district to repair freeways and dams.
“Loretta is unvarnished,” John Hanna, government affairs director for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said in an interview last week after the union representing 35,000 Southern California carpenters endorsed Sanchez. “But you know what? We’ll take somebody who stubs their toe any day over people who are carefully packaged politicians.”
Harris’ cautious campaign was not what Sanchez herself was focusing on last week. She was playing the experience card, an interesting move in a year in which anti-establishment sentiment has ruled politics.
“I have 19 years of experience doing the job in the U.S. Congress,” she said in an interview. “So I know the players, I know the world leaders. I have an expertise that none of them bring, which is homeland security, military strategy, what we are doing in the world and our relationships as well as so many other proven areas.
“I know how to cast difficult votes when the pressure is on,” she added, “so I do believe that I have been tested.”
Still, there is the matter of money — “I only need enough money to run the race I need to run,” Sanchez said, offering the standard line of the trailing candidate — and mojo.
Harris has worked hard to make her election appear inevitable, jumping into the race shortly after Boxer announced her planned departure and lining up scads of endorsements meant to persuade other strong candidates to opt out. (Sanchez also has begun to amass competing endorsements, including that of the carpenters.)
Her race is inspired, as much as anything, by Boxer’s own leap from the House to the Senate in 1992, when the odds were that the Democratic nomination would go to one of two better-known and better-financed men, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and Westside Democratic Rep. Mel Levine.
“Barbara just ran around the state and was Barbara,” said Sanchez strategist Bill Carrick, who was running Dianne Feinstein’s parallel race for the Senate that year.
Sanchez holds a card that was unavailable to any of Boxer’s Democratic challengers: the state’s top-two rules, which will push into the November general election the two candidates with the most votes in June.
Barring a coalescing of Republicans behind a single candidate, Sanchez is in a strong position to make the runoff against Harris. Turnout from Latinos and Southern Californians is at its highest in presidential general elections, so Sanchez would in theory gain support from June to November.
Harris has won two successive races as attorney general, but has little background in federal issues beyond legal ones. While she bones up, Sanchez hopes to convince Californians that, her occasional bursts of negative publicity notwithstanding, she is made of serious stuff.
In the interview, she criticized the Obama and Bush administrations for failing to follow Congress’ demand to tighten surveillance of those in the country on tourist visas. But that was the single recommendation she made; otherwise she stuck to a bland response that didn’t exactly seem to highlight what she says are the benefits of her experience.
“We will learn lessons from San Bernardino. Give us time to assess,” she said. “And then it is the role of Congress as the representative of the people to figure out what we need to tighten up, what we need to do and where the resources will come for that.”
Still, if Loretta can just be Loretta, she thinks her odds are good.
“I believe the more people I get to, the more people will realize, yeah, that’s the one we want,” she said.