The long-obscure race for a U.S. Senate seat in California is arriving on the state’s airwaves, and the ads being put out by the top two candidates, both Democrats, explain a great deal about their political goals and, for that matter, about California itself.
The front-runner, Kamala Harris, has been California’s attorney general for more than five years and has run two statewide campaigns for the seat. The second, Orange County’s Loretta Sanchez, has served in Congress for nearly 20 years.
And yet in this big and often politically uninvolved state, each is opening her television ad campaign by reminding the voting public who she is.
Yes, that does makes sense; a March USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that nearly a third of Californians hadn’t a clue whom to vote for among the two Democrats and the lesser-known Republicans. It would not be beyond the pale for many of the state’s 17.3 million voters to need visual reminders of their options to fill the seat held since 1992 by Democrat Barbara Boxer.
Underneath the biographic veneer were the strategic thrusts of the candidates. Harris is a tough character with important allies, her ads say. Sanchez is an influential Latina who knows national security, her ads say.
The contest between Harris and Sanchez likely won’t end in June; the top two Senate candidates, regardless of party, will move on to the November general election. Right now, the top two are Harris and Sanchez, and Republican hopes of vaulting past one of them took a hit with the end of their presidential contest five weeks before the California primary.
If the two Democrats are vying in November, the ads they are now airing predict a battle between the growing power of the party’s young and liberal voters and the increasing heft of Latinos, the state Democratic party’s most influential voter group over the past two decades.
Harris’ ads are reminiscent of those she ran during her slam-dunk re-election as attorney general, and there’s a reason: Those 2014 ads were meant to influence Harris’ next race, which turned out to be the one she is in now.
In 2014, when she was running against an unknown and politically destitute Republican, Harris cast herself as tough but caring, a candidate who could put bad guys in jail one minute and high-five with kids the next. So, too, is she credited in the new Senate ads.
But if it was a mere anonymous narrator delivering that message in 2014, Harris’ campaign has brought in a bigger gun to confer credibility in this race: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren is an icon among the liberal left, second only to the man who now defines that chunk of the party, presidential hopeful and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Warren and Harris have been political allies since at least 2012, when Harris campaigned for Warren’s election.
“ ‘Fearless,’ that’s what Elizabeth Warren said about Kamala Harris taking on the powerful on behalf of the state of California,” a narrator says as a picture of Warren fills the screen. “Harris prosecuted violent predators and transnational gangs exploiting women and children. She took on big oil companies violating our hazardous waste laws. And Kamala Harris sued the big banks and won $20 billion for California homeowners.”
In case the first mention wasn’t enough, viewers see Warren herself make the claim at a California Democratic Party event: “Kamala Harris was fearless.”
A second television spot, presumably meant for areas where Warren’s presence won’t necessarily help, repeats much the same language, including the word “fearless.”
A third Harris ad is a declarative effort to blunt Sanchez’s pitch for Latino loyalty. The ad covers much the same territory, in Spanish, courtesy of Dolores Huerta, one of the legends of the United Farm Workers movement. She closes the ad by citing the farmworker slogan she and Cesar Chavez are credited with: Sí se puede. Yes, we can.
The importance of Latino voters is evident by counting Sanchez’s first batch of ads (3 of the 4 released Friday were in Spanish).
The English-language one repeats a CQ Roll Call citation of Sanchez as “one of the most influential women in Congress.” But the rest is Sanchez herself, meeting with a wide variety of presumed voters and selling her biography rather than any flashy friends.
“I come from you, and I’ll fight for you,” she says in one of the Spanish-language ads. (The March USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that Sanchez’s candidacy was afloat because of Latinos: Twice as many of them supported her as Harris, who won among other racial groups.)
But Sanchez, too, made a play in her ads for the liberal flank of the party that has been so energized by Sanders’ come-from-nowhere presidential campaign.
While the thrust of the English-language ad is to tout her familiarity with national security issues in Washington, it also cites her vote against the Iraq war and the Wall Street bailout. One of the Spanish-language ads also reminds voters of her support for a $15 per hour minimum wage. All three issues are key elements of Sanders’ campaign.
“I want to create jobs, expand educational opportunity and healthcare, and pass immigration reform,” she says as she faces the camera. “I’m Loretta Sanchez, and I approve this message because I’m ready to meet our challenges at home and abroad.”
The competing ads are only the opening pitches of the Senate race. More detail will inevitably be colored in as the candidates outline their senatorial proposals.
But those plans are not likely to differ hugely. The decision likely to be facing California voters is not a straight-up choice between a leftward Democrat and a conservative Democrat. Rather, it would be a more nuanced one, between two women whose political strengths are obvious both in their life experiences and their advertising.