California's U.S. Senate campaign appears stuck in a political stasis, with nearly a third of voters still undecided about who to support in a race lost in the shadow of the nation's presidential contest, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Support for Democratic state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, the current frontrunner, has not budged from the level of support she registered shortly after entering into the race a year ago, despite spending nearly $4 million on her campaign.
Harris' top Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), has shown small gains since the fall in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley. But she has not gained enough support to solidify the overall second-place finish in the June primary needed to advance the November general election.
The results were not any rosier for two of the top Republicans in the race, Tom Del Beccaro and George "Duf" Sundheim, whose showings are in the single digits. Del Beccaro and Sundheim are Bay Area attorneys and former chairmen of the California Republican Party.
The survey found Harris leading Sanchez 28% to 19% among registered voters, followed by Del Beccaro with 8% and Sundheim with 6%.
Among likely voters in the June primary — those with a solid track record of casting ballots — Harris was a notch higher, hitting 33%. That compares to 15% for Sanchez, 10% for Del Beccaro and 8% for Sundheim.
FOR THE RECORD
6:37 p.m.: An earlier version of this article story stated that the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that Kamala Harris' support among likely voters in the June 7 primary election was 30%. According to the poll, 33% of likely primary voters surveyed supported Harris.
Republican Ron Unz, who championed a 1998 initiative to end bilingual education in California, jumped into the Senate campaign last week and was not included in the poll.
"I think what is most striking about the Senate race is that it hasn't changed since September," said Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the poll with the Republican firm American Viewpoint.
In the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in September, Harris led Sanchez 26% to 17% among registered voters, with Del Beccaro receiving 10%. Sundheim had not entered the race at the time.
Harris' support among registered voters hasn't risen or fallen to a significant degree since February 2015, a month after she jumped into the race, when she was favored by 28% of registered voters. Support for Harris failed to increase even after she received the endorsement of California Democratic Party in late February.
While the candidates have traveled up and down the state for months, mostly networking with party loyalists and donors, the radio and television ads that consumed previous high-profile, statewide political races have been noticeably absent. That, combined with the all-consuming news coverage of the presidential race, has largely eclipsed California's Senate contest in voters' minds.
"I really haven't been paying much attention. I know Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez are in it, but I'm not too comfortable with them," said Jose Torres, a Republican property manager from Tustin who took part in the poll.
Torres, 39, couldn't name any of the Republicans running for Senate, but said he plans to study up before the June primary.
"It doesn't take much to research a few of those candidates," he said.
Marylou Slagle, a Democratic homemaker from Temecula, said she's supporting Harris because she believes she has done a good job as state attorney general and there "haven't been any nasty rumblings about her." Slagle, 62, also acknowledged that she hasn't been paying much attention to the race or the other candidates, though.
"I'm really focused on what's going on with the presidential race right now," she said.
Under the rules of California's "jungle primary" election, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the June election — regardless of party — will face off in the November election.
While Harris and Sanchez have topped the polls in the Senate race for months, the outcome of the June 7 primary remains difficult to predict because of the vast pool of undecided voters.
The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey on the Senate race found that 32% of registered voters in California were undecided. Among Republicans and independent voters — those registered as "no party preference" — roughly 40% were undecided.
Given that volatility in the electorate, there is still a strong possibility that one of the Republicans in the race could emerge as the GOP consensus candidate and edge out Sanchez, said Dan Schnur, who directs USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
If one of the Republicans can pump $1 million into a strategic ad campaign targeting loyal GOP voters — or if a California Republican mega-donor such as Charles Munger bankrolls an independent expenditure campaign — that might be enough to squeak out a second-place finish in the primary, Schnur said.
"It's pretty clear that even a very small amount of money … could end up getting them into a runoff," he said.
A freewheeling mega-donor might be the best hope. At the end of 2015, Sundheim had less than $70,000 in his campaign account, and Del Beccaro just under $40,000, federal election records show.
Another wild card will be the GOP's presidential race, which looks like it will barrel into the California primary without a crowned nominee. If other state primaries are an indication, Republican voter turnout could increase 20% to 40%, while Democratic turnout might be below normal.
That, too, could give a Republican candidate an edge if GOP voters can coalesce behind one candidate before June, Schnur said. If not, the splintered Republican vote might give Sanchez the opening she needs to nab one of the two spots on the November ballot.
According to the survey, Harris' strongest support is in the Bay Area, where she served as San Francisco's district attorney before being elected attorney general. She also has strong support among black voters, those with college degrees and self-identified liberals.
Sanchez's strongest support comes from Latinos, and among voters without college degrees and those in lower-income brackets.
The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,503 registered state voters by telephone from March 16-23. The margin of error overall is 2.8 percentage points, and higher for subgroups.
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