Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris won the coveted California Democratic Party endorsement for U.S. Senate on Saturday, solidifying her status as the front-runner and delivering a setback to her top rival, Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
Harris captured 78.1% of the votes to earn the state Democrats' official seal of approval. It's a prize that provides her with a clear edge in the June 7 primary and, most likely, financial support from the party.
The endorsement came after the two Democratic Senate candidates, running to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, made their final pitches to local activists and other elected officials.
Harris asked Democrats to help her deliver a "more perfect union" and Sanchez asked them to trust her experience and record over other candidates' "talk."
But Harris prevailed in a landslide. Of the 2,139 ballots cast, 19.3% were for Sanchez and 2.6% voted for no endorsement at all.
Their back-to-back speeches, the warm-up acts before Vice President Joe Biden took the stage, capped a furious two days of campaigning by both women.
Sanchez spoke of her hardscrabble upbringing, cleaning homes to help one of her brothers pay for college, and how her Mexican immigrant parents' hard work and perseverance allowed them to achieve the American dream. The congresswoman emphasized her record and experience in Washington and received the warmest response when extolling her votes against the Iraq war, the bank bailout and the Patriot Act.
"While other candidates talk about boldly changing in Washington, I've done it for 20 years," Sanchez said, taking a subtle dig at Harris. "Experience matters, and I will hit the ground running in the Senate."
Harris walked onto the stage to rousing applause and described the life-shaping experience of growing up in the Bay Area as the daughter of two civil rights activists. Harris' speech hewed to the high ideals of the Democratic Party and the "poison" politics consuming the Republican presidential race. She vowed to protect and restore the fundamental rights of all Americans.
"For far too many, liberty and justice for all is a promise we have failed to keep," Harris said.
Winning the party endorsement required at least 60% of the votes from credentialed party delegates or their proxies, a mark that historically has been difficult to reach because delegates also have the option of checking a box for "no endorsement."
Sanchez came to San Jose knowing that she faced an uphill battle. On Friday, she lamented that the Democratic establishment was clearly in Harris' corner.
"It's all about the insiders. We knew this from the beginning," Sanchez said. "Getting into the race was not going to be easy, because the insiders already chose who would be the next senator."
After the results were announced, Sanchez spokesman Luis Vizcaino said his boss would advance to the June 7 primary. "Make no mistake, today's vote was not the primary," he said. "Congresswoman Sanchez is on track to be one of two candidates in the general election where the electoral dynamics change in her favor."
Harris relished the victory in a statement late Saturday.
"I'm incredibly honored to have the endorsement of the California Democratic Party in the U.S. Senate race, and I'm so proud of the support our campaign has received from every corner of our state," she said. "We know there is more that unites us than divides us, and I'm grateful to the Californians who joined together to send that message this weekend."
The Harris campaign devoted substantially more effort in wooing delegates throughout the convention. Her supporters, many wearing bright blue T-shirts bearing her name, swarmed the hallways all weekend, crowded inside caucus meetings and lobbied delegates for their votes.
Sanchez, by contrast, arrived with just a small contingent of aides, and her campaign was barely visible.
The enthusiasm for Harris was evident early on. Several state lawmakers tweeted photos of themselves voting for her throughout the day.
At a meeting of the party's powerful Labor Caucus on Friday night, Harris received a standing ovation. Sanchez was greeted with a smattering of polite applause. On Saturday morning, Harris received a warm, enthusiastic welcome from activists in the party's environmental caucus. Sanchez, who sat in the front row for Harris' speech, received polite applause.
But the congresswoman said she was undaunted. She also failed to land the state Democratic Party endorsement in her first run for Congress in 1996, and she went on to win the nomination and oust Orange County conservative Rep. Robert Dornan.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), a Harris supporter, said the attorney general has a long history of championing core Democratic ideals in California, including going after the big banks behind the mortgage crisis and leading the fight for same-sex marriage. She praised Sanchez as a terrific candidate but said Harris, who served as San Francisco district attorney before being elected attorney general, outshined the congresswoman.
"That's what campaigns are about. That's what conventions are about," Atkins said. "These things are hard discussions and decisions."
Rep. Janice Hahn, a candidate for Los Angeles County supervisor, admitted that having the Democratic convention in Northern California — Harris' strongest base of political support — didn't help Sanchez.
"Endorsements are nice," Hahn said before the voting began. "But at the end of the day, it all comes down to who can turn out their supporters on election day."
Democratic political consultant Garry South said California's top-two primary system may complicate the value the party endorsement. The two candidates who receive the most votes June 7, regardless of party, face off Nov. 8.
If Harris and Sanchez both advance, the Democratic Party's endorsement will do little to win over Republicans and independent voters, South said.
"I don't think there's any question that Loretta can get enough votes to finish in the top two," South said. "Then you have to hit the reset button, because every vote is in play."
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