Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez's U.S. Senate campaign has swerved away from the left side of the road in recent weeks.
The Democratic congresswoman popped up on a conservative talk radio show in San Diego to tout her record against "Islamic extremists." She ventured to Shasta Lake, Northern California's Republican frontier populated by farmers and ranchers, and promised to listen to all sides to address the state's water crisis. And on Thursday, Sanchez will chat with U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton, where she will be joined by Vista Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who once called President Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times."
In California's historic Democrat-versus-Democrat U.S. Senate race, those events and a string of others offer clear signs of Sanchez's effort to court the fertile field of Republicans, independents and moderates who feel disenfranchised with two Democrats on the Senate ballot.
But whether Sanchez can attract enough support across the political spectrum to overcome opponent state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' substantial advantages in fundraising, among Democratic Party leadership and in the polls, especially among California's registered Democrats, remains in doubt.
A Field poll in early July found that 39% of likely voters supported Harris, compared with 24% for Sanchez. Harris had the support of nearly half of likely Democratic voters.
That same poll, however, found that 56% of Republicans and 41% of independents and voters in other parties were undecided or didn't support either candidate. It's that group of untethered California voters that offers Sanchez a glimmer of hope in November, if she can win them over.
Seizing on a potential opportunity to broaden her base of support, Sanchez has cast her front-runner rival as the "totally to the left" darling of the San Francisco-based California Democratic establishment, a message similar to that pushed by Republicans in the primary.
But to win, Sanchez still needs strong backing from Latinos and a decent share of Democrats, which could make her path to victory challenging.
"It's not like she's going to suddenly become something she's not," said Bill Carrick, Sanchez's political consultant. "But a lot of what is in her record is what Republicans like: national security experience, homeland security experience. There's plenty of Republicans who like the fact that she voted against the war in Iraq. There are a lot of Republicans who like the fact that she voted against the Wall Street bailout."
Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who hosts a conservative radio talk show on KOGO-AM in San Diego, had Sanchez on as a guest last week and talked about the dilemma that he and his Republican listeners face in a Senate election between two Democrats.
"I'm not sold on you at this point, but I can tell you right now I'm definitely urging a 'no' vote on Harris," DeMaio said.
"If you don't vote, then Ms. Harris and her party establishment will win," Sanchez replied.
This summer, the Sanchez campaign boasted about endorsements from two prominent Southern California Republicans: former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita. Riordan has called Harris a "crazy liberal" and McKeon, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised Sanchez for supporting policies that protect "our troops and the homeland."
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt endorsed Sanchez when he interviewed her in July and later tweeted: "That was a 1st in my 16 years of a national radio show: I endorsed a Democrat 4 US Senate: @Loretta2016: an old friend + far better of 2 Ds."
None of the major Republican opponents from the June Senate primary have endorsed either Democrat, and most declined to reveal who might get their vote.
Former GOP candidate Tom Del Beccaro doesn't plan to vote, a protest, he said, of 2010's Proposition 14, which gave California the "top two" primary.
The congresswoman was also endorsed last week by the National Assn. of Women Business Owners and addressed the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
On Thursday Sanchez is scheduled to join Republican congressmen Issa and Mike Turner of Ohio, as well as Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), at a meeting with troops at Camp Pendleton. Issa's district includes the U.S. Marine base, and Sanchez, Turner and Peters are members of the House Armed Services Committee.
The event provides Sanchez with an opportunity to put her expertise on defense and national security issues on full display, a background she says makes her the most qualified Senate candidate on the ballot.
Still, Sanchez has struggled to raise campaign funds, and two independent campaign committees formed to catapult her campaign — one backed by Republicans and the other by moderates — don't appear to be faring any better.
Some Republican political consultants told The Times that business groups and conservatives have looked at reaching out to the Sanchez campaign, worried about Harris' liberal leanings and her possible bright future in Washington.
Marty Wilson, who managed Republican Carly Fiorina's 2010 Senate campaign against Sen. Barbara Boxer, said he's taken part in some "casual conversations" with conservative-leaning organizations in Washington about the Sanchez-Harris race. Wilson, who now works for the California Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that it would take about $15 million to have an effect on the race, and in the end a Democrat would still go to Washington.
President Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Democratic Party have all endorsed Harris, adding an air of inevitability to her campaign in left-leaning California. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently hosted a Manhattan fundraiser for Harris that will likely add to her financial edge in the race.
As of June 30, Harris had a 3-1 advantage over Sanchez in fundraising, and $2.7 million still in the bank compared to Sanchez's $919,000.
The Harris campaign also has tailored its message to appeal to a broad spectrum of California voters. She has emphasized her accomplishments as the state's top law enforcement officer, touting her work helping to broker a $25-billion nationwide settlement deal with the nation's five largest mortgage institutions for improper foreclosure practices during the housing market crash. Harris will address the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in October.
On DeMaio's radio show, Sanchez told listeners that, while she has a strong Democratic record, she also has a reputation for working across the aisle and has acquired expertise on national defense and homeland security issues that she said her rival in the Senate race sorely lacks.
Sanchez also did not back down from her comments last December that 5% to 20% of Muslims support a caliphate — a strict Islamic state — a comment criticized by Muslim groups.
"I think when people take a look at me on the issues, they will realize I have the courage to confront and speak out against the threat of Islamic extremists," Sanchez said. "I have a common-sense approach to gun control that respects the basic human right of self defense — Second Amendment rights. I'm strong on veterans' issues, I'm strong on national defense, on counterterrorism, on homeland security."
Not surprisingly, the Harris campaign took notice.
"The vast majority of Californians, regardless of party, will be disheartened to hear the congresswoman once again use divisive rhetoric against Muslims and tout her record giving special protections to gun makers and the NRA," said Nathan Click, spokesman for the Harris campaign. "Kamala's campaign is about uniting Californians to address the challenges our nation faces and to stand up to the corrosive rhetoric we are seeing in our politics."
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