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Democrat Loretta Sanchez may need an assist from GOP voters in Senate race

Rep. Loretta Sanchez is trailing Democratic rival Kamala Harris in her bid for the U.S. Senate, polls show.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, the Democrat famous for bumping ultra-conservative GOP Rep. Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan from office in Orange County two decades ago, may need a little Republican love next year.

That’s among the challenges Sanchez faces in her bid for the U.S. Senate against main Democratic rival Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, and a field of less-known Republicans and other candidates.

To survive the state’s top-two primary election in June, Sanchez needs two of her biggest bases of political support, Southern Californians and Latinos, to defy their historically lackluster turnout at the polls, analysts say. Support from California’s growing group of independents and moderates — Republican moderates, in particular — may also be essential.

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Republican consultant Mike Madrid said that’s because Latinos running statewide have traditionally had difficulty attracting broad support from “white, old, rich Bernie Sanders progressives” living along California’s coast, where much of the population is.

“For the past 20 years, she, along with other Latino politicians, have been beating on Republicans like a piñata. Now she needs their votes,” Madrid said. “It will be fascinating to watch.”

For the past 20 years, she, along with other Latino politicians, have been beating on Republicans like a piñata. Now she needs their votes.

Mike Madrid, Republican consultant

Crafting a campaign that appeals to this patchwork of voters, many with divergent views on taxes, immigration and other divisive issues, could be difficult. But Madrid said Latinos and moderate Republicans do align on certain issues: creating jobs, strengthening the middle class and improving schools with such actions as weeding out bad teachers and embracing charters.

“That’s a winning combination for Latino candidates statewide,” Madrid said.

Only the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, will advance to the November general election. Harris remains the presumptive front-runner, leading Sanchez by double digits in recent opinion polls.

Harris also has raised more money and won the adulation of establishment Democrats. In addition, she hails from the Bay Area, envied for its high voter turnout. California’s two senators, governor and five of the seven other statewide officeholders have roots in that solidly Democratic slice of Northern California.

“With traditional voters, the advantage is for Harris,” said UCLA political scientist Matt A. Barreto, a co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions.

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A wild card that could aid Sanchez will be the presidential primary, Barreto said.

Even if the Republican and Democratic nominees are already decided before California votes in June, Donald Trump’s name will be on the ballot. His fiery rhetoric against immigrants in the country illegally could drive more Latinos to the polls to cast ballots against Republicans, Barreto said.

Sanchez could tell voters, “You need to send me to the U.S. Senate to fight for immigrant rights,” Barreto said.

“You don’t see people go take to the street on any other issue,” he added, referring to the 500,000 who marched for immigrant rights in Los Angeles in 2006.

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Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, who received widespread support among Latino voters in her 2008 campaign, could also push Latino turnout upward in June. In a Field Poll of likely voters released in early October, 52% of Latino Democrats said they supported Clinton’s bid for president; compared with 43% of white Democrats who favored her.

Earlier this year, before Sanchez joined the race, some influential members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus expressed dismay that many Democratic leaders in the state had been quick to support Harris. Sanchez has since been endorsed by many members of that caucus, as well as by Democratic Reps. Tony Cárdenas and Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, Norma Torres of Pomona, Juan Vargas of San Diego and Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert.

Harris cedes nothing to Sanchez, however. On Monday, Harris was endorsed in Los Angeles by the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión, and her campaign touts endorsements by Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera and former state lawmaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.

Harris has staunchly defended “sanctuary cities,” some of which limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with U.S. immigration officials. And as attorney general she has pushed to provide strong legal defense for unaccompanied children emigrating from Central America.

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“I’ve run statewide twice,” Harris said last weekend while campaigning in Escondido, “and my experience is the issues that people care about … cross ideological lines.”

In both of her races for attorney general, Harris dominated the Bay Area and voter-rich, heavily Democratic Los Angeles County. But she lost in Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Bill Carrick, a strategist for Sanchez, said opinion polls show that neither woman is well known statewide, making the campaign challenging for both.

California’s top-two primary system adds to the unpredictability. Although the election is still more than eight months away, Republicans have yet to coalesce behind one GOP candidate; Republican votes could splinter enough for Democrats to capture the gold and the silver in June.

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According to the Field Poll, Harris led with 30% support, and Sanchez was second with 17%.

Among Republicans, Oceanside Assemblyman Rocky Chavez was the front-runner at 9%. Contra Costa County attorney Tom Del Beccaro had 6% support and Silicon Valley attorney George “Duf” Sundheim, 3%. Both Del Beccaro and Sundheim are former chairmen of the California Republican Party.

Carrick said some moderate Republicans may believe that none of the GOP candidates has a realistic shot at victory in this heavily Democratic state and could opt for the Democrat whose politics most align with theirs. Sanchez’s record on national defense — she sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security and the House Armed Services Committee — may make her the most appealing alternative, he said.

“Republican voters may ask themselves, ‘Should I waste my vote on someone who doesn’t have a chance?’” Carrick said.

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Dornan laughed off that possibility.

“Republican primary voters are more knowledgeable” than those in general elections, he said. "… She doesn’t stand a chance with them.”

But Dornan, who now lives in Virginia and occasionally hosts talk radio programs and whose disdain for Sanchez remains palpable, noted that elections are difficult to predict this far ahead.

“I don’t expect her to make a credible run,” Dornan said. “Having said that, it’s a crazy world. Four words: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders.”

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phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

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