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Kamala Harris cashes in on the state Democratic Party's Senate endorsement while her rival gets nothing

Kamala Harris cashes in on the state Democratic Party's Senate endorsement while her rival gets nothing
U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris talks to media after speaking at the Eid-al Fitr Services hosted by the Islamic Center of Southern California at the L.A. Convention Center in July. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Two Democrats will be on California's U.S. Senate ballot this November, but only one has the state Democratic Party's blessing — and money.

The California Democratic Party has provided more than $560,000 to state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' campaign, spending close to $100,000 on mailers, window signs, campaign handout cards and door nob hangers prominently featuring Harris as the party's recommended Senate candidate in November.

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But the other candidate on the ballot,  Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez,  hasn't received a dime from the California Democratic Party. And with outside groups all but dormant when it comes to spending on the race, Sanchez is mostly on her own when it comes to fundraising.

Harris won the California Democratic Party's support in February when delegates at its annual convention voted overwhelmingly to endorse her for Senate, a major snub to the Sanchez campaign. With that endorsement came the spoils of partisan victory: bragging rights, a troop of Democratic campaign volunteers and, most notably, cash.

"Kamala won the support of nearly 80% of our grassroots activists. So we're all in for her," said Shawnda Westly, senior strategist for the California Democratic Party. "We're going to do what we need to win."

The party's contributions could have a major impact on the outcome of a Senate race in which many voters remain undecided and both candidates are strapped for money.

Two recent polls found that up to half of likely California voters remain undecided or will not vote in November, and that Harris' lead over Sanchez hovers anywhere from seven to 22 percentage points. Republican voters appear to be the most frustrated because, no matter who wins in November, California will send a Democrat to Washington.

As of June 30, neither candidate had the tens of millions of dollars needed to pay for a statewide media campaign — Harris had just $2.6 million and Sanchez had less than a million in the bank. The race also failed to attract outside money from super PACs, unlike other hot Senate contests across the nation where ads from special interest groups have flooded the airwaves.

Sanchez for months has said that Harris, who served as San Francisco's district attorney before she was elected attorney general, has been the darling of the state's Bay Area-based Democratic establishment from the outset of the Senate campaign. Sanchez's campaign spokesman said this week that the stream of state party money going to Harris just adds to the evidence.

"With more than $600,000 spent on Kamala Harris' campaign, it is without a doubt that she is the political establishment insider," Sanchez campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino said in an email. "But all the money in the world can't change the stark difference between Kamala Harris' failed record as Attorney General who is always campaigning for her next job and Loretta Sanchez who for 20 years has taken the tough votes and can work across party lines to get things done."

The money started rolling into the Harris campaign just weeks after the California Democrats' endorsement. The state party has picked up the tab for the rent on Harris' campaign office in Los Angeles and the salaries of most of her staff, including campaign manager Juan Rodiguez. Campaign phone bills, state and federal payroll taxes, legal fees, the alarm service, copier rental and staff health and dental insurance have also been paid by the state party, which provided Harris with fundraising and political consultants, not to mention $1,560 for parking.

Slate handout paid for by the California Democratic Party.
Slate handout paid for by the California Democratic Party. (California Democratic Party)

Three million political mailers featuring Harris, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and a slate of the party's endorsed candidates for Congress and the state Legislature have been sent out to the county parties and should soon arrive in voters' mailboxes. Volunteers are working telephone banks hawking the party's candidates, including Harris, to voters.

"Our campaign is proud to have earned the support of the California Democratic Party after the overwhelming endorsement vote of grassroots activists," Harris campaign spokesman Nathan Click said. "From Day One of this race our campaign has said we aren't going to take anything for granted, and we're continuing to work hard for every vote between now and Election Day."

The support might not end there. Westly added that so far she doesn't see any need for the party to launch negative attacks against Sanchez. But she didn't rule it out.

"We haven't shied away from going negative in the past," Westly said.

With her mother, Maria Macias, left, and her husband Jack Einwechter behind her, Rep. Loretta Sanchez announces that she will run for Barbara Boxer's seat in the U.S. Senate in May, 2015.
With her mother, Maria Macias, left, and her husband Jack Einwechter behind her, Rep. Loretta Sanchez announces that she will run for Barbara Boxer's seat in the U.S. Senate in May, 2015. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The family fight between two Democrat Senate contenders is a byproduct of the state's top-two primary system, which sends the two candidates who received the most votes in the primary into a November election run-off — regardless of their political party.

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Among the 34 candidates on the June 7 primary ballot, Harris received 40% of the vote and Sanchez came in second with 19%. That set the stage for California's highest profile intra-party race since the top-two primary was approved by voters in 2010.

The Harris-Sanchez race has been a sedate affair compared with  California's last hotly contested Senate campaign. The 2010 election between Republican Carly Fiorina and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer attracted millions of dollars from the national political parties and interest groups.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee each spent the maximum allowed amount of $4.8 million in coordinated expenditures on their respective candidates, money that was primarily spent on ads.

An additional $7.4 million was spent by outside groups. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce poured more than $3.7 million into ads opposing Boxer. Other outside groups spent more than $2 million on independent expenditures either supporting Boxer or opposing Fiorina.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has thus far decided to sit out the Democratic match-up between Sanchez and Harris, a spokeswoman said.

With political control over the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance this election, super PACs have poured tens of millions of dollars into some of the nation's most hotly contested U.S. Senate races. All but a few have ignored California's race.

The largest super PAC that jumped in thus far is backing Harris. The political organization, Standing Up for California's Middle Class, has raised about $1.3 million, said Doug Herman, the Democratic political consultant working with the PAC.

The group is backed primarily by organized labor, including $100,000 from the Service Employees International Union's United Healthcare Workers and another $100,000 from the International Assn. of Fire Fighters. Stephen Cloobeck of Las Vegas, the chief executive of a vacation time-share and resorts company, also gave $100,000 to the PAC, as well as $2,700 to Harris' Senate campaign and $10,000 to a joint fundraising committee formed by Harris and the California Democratic Party.

Herman said the super PAC has not engaged in any campaign activity so far, but action is expected soon. He said fundraising picked up substantially after Sanchez was backed by a right-leaning super PAC and she received the endorsements of some well-known Republicans, including Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista.

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"Democrats don't want to see a Democrat elected with Republican support," he said.

The committee backing Sanchez, the Jobs, Opportunity and Freedom PAC, has raised only $25,000 as of June 30, according to its most report report filed with the Federal Election Commission. Last June, Sacramento political consultant Dave Gilliard said the PAC's pro-Sanchez campaign would be focused on Republican voters because no GOP candidate would be on the November ballot. Gilliard was not available for comment.

Another super PAC supporting Sanchez, Orange County-based group California's New Frontier, has support from Democratic donors as well as Republicans, including members of the area's business community. The PAC had raised $99,000 as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Twitter: @philwillon 

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