State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is holding her lead in the race to succeed Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, but strong support among Latinos has enabled Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County to establish herself as a serious rival, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
The survey found Harris leading Sanchez, a fellow Democrat, 26% to 17% among registered voters, followed by former state Republican chairman Tom Del Beccaro, with 10%, and Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside), with 9%.
Former state Republican Party leader George “Duf” Sundheim entered the race last week, too late for inclusion in the poll.
The primary election is in June, and it is far from settled: More than a third of voters were undecided, and more candidates could still emerge.
Regardless of party, the contestants who finish first and second will advance to a November 2016 runoff.
“Unless the Republicans coalesce behind one single candidate, we will probably end up seeing a runoff between two Democrats,” said poll director Dan Schnur, who leads USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
Sundheim’s arrival could further fracture the Republican vote and deepen the party’s disadvantage in a state dominated by Democrats.
Latino voters are a crucial foundation for Sanchez, the survey found: They favor her over Harris 34% to 18%. People who took the survey in Spanish are her strongest constituency; more than half of them support Sanchez, a daughter of Mexican immigrants.
Sanchez first won national attention in 1996, when she ousted Republican firebrand Bob Dornan from Congress, a major breakthrough for Latinos in California.
But she remains relatively unknown outside Orange County. The only areas where she was leading Harris in the poll were Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Imperial counties.
Survey respondent Tania Palma, a mail carrier who lives in Hemet, said she was backing Sanchez simply because she was the only Democrat whose name was familiar.
“I just know a little bit more about her than the other ones,” said Palma, a 34-year-old Latina Democrat.
Sanchez announced her candidacy in May. She stumbled badly a few days later when she tapped her hand to her mouth in imitation of a Native American “war cry” in remarks to Democratic activists at a state party convention in Anaheim.
She apologized in a speech on the convention floor and has since kept a low profile.
For Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, the Bay Area is a formidable stronghold, the poll suggested: Voters there favored her over Sanchez 40% to 16%. In primaries, turnout of Democratic voters is typically stronger in the Bay Area than in Southern California.
Kate Ahalt, 34, a San Francisco financial services worker who participated in the poll, said she backed Harris because of “a very vague, broad positive feeling about an attorney general who has done a decent to good job and is a Democrat.”
“I have a fairly strong party affiliation, I guess,” Ahalt said.
Another edge for Harris is her job as California’s top law enforcement officer, a platform for frequent statewide media exposure. In Los Angeles County, where Harris often holds official press events that dovetail with her campaign agenda, she was ahead of Sanchez 30% to 20%.
For all the candidates, the biggest challenge ahead is to raise enough money to run ads introducing themselves to voters who, for now, are unfamiliar with them.
“I don’t really know that much about what’s going on with the Senate race right now, and who’s campaigning,” said Ted Booe, 41, a Republican air-conditioner repairman who lives in Escondido.
Booe said he prefers Republicans who oppose “anti-gun laws” but knew nothing about those running for Senate. He said he also favored building a wall across the Mexican border to stop immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally, and that’s why he preferred Del Beccaro over Chavez.
“Because his last name sounds Hispanic,” Booe said of Chavez, “I think he might be a little more on their side.”
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,500 registered state voters was taken by phone from Aug. 29 to Sept. 8.
The bipartisan survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic company, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, and higher for subgroups.
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