California’s U.S. Senate candidates are on their own as the national Democratic Party sits it out

Kamala Harris at an event for faith leaders from Southern California in mid-September.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The president has endorsed a candidate. The seat hasn’t been open since 1992. It’s one of the most expensive states from which to run for Congress. Either person on the ballot would make history.

California’s U.S. Senate race has all the makings of a contest that would attract national attention, huge fundraising and a flood of high-profile appearances from out-of-state friends trying to help their nominee win.

Except this year, there are two Democrats on the ballot.

It’s clear the national party favors one — Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris — but given she faces someone from her own party, the traditional machinery that comes along with a campaign like this one has gone by the wayside.


That means no volunteers on the ground sent from Washington. Elizabeth Warren appears in television ads for Harris, but none of the major players so far has shown up in the Golden State. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is investing resources in swing Senate contests, is staying out of it.

“We are thrilled that a Democrat will be replacing Barbara Boxer in the Senate to continue her legacy of fighting for middle class families,” is all Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in a statement. The committee has spent over $500,000 helping 11 candidates, and zero on California’s race.

To be fair, the national party’s not the only one: The contest between Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both female minorities, has attracted little attention nationally and the candidates have struggled to build interest at home.

Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor, said it shouldn’t be a surprise: The party’s priority is to elect the most Democrats, not particular ones.

“It’s going to get the seat one way or another,” he said. “It’s dangerous for the party to be seen playing favorites unless there’s a real strong reason to.”

Nothing like California’s Senate contest has happened anywhere in the country in more than 100 years but intra-party fights for Senate seats were once common. States like Florida, Tennessee and Washington had a single dominant political party and state legislators would pick U.S. senators from within their ranks.


All that changed in 1913 with the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which called for voters to directly elect senators. After that, nearly every state’s elections system led to members of opposing parties competing for seats.

And, “now with California’s system and California’s political disposition, they are always going to send Democrats,” said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor.

That means the national Democratic Party’s laissez faire approach may be the new normal for general election Senate campaigns in California.

Even though the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is remaining hands off, the state Democratic Party didn’t feel such compunction: it endorsed Harris at their convention in February and has actively supported her. And 19 of 44 sitting senators have picked a side.

All donated to Harris in the year and a half since she entered the race. Just one sitting senator, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has also financially backed U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Harris’ donors include well-known Senate leaders like Warren (Mass.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), and Patrick Leahy (Vermont) as well as up and comers like Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.)

In total, the 19 sitting senators, and three recently retired senators have donated more than $124,000 to Harris’ campaign. Stabenow gave Sanchez $2,500.

The contributions all come through leadership PACs, the political action committees that current and former politicians create to contribute to other political candidates.

In addition to the donations, several senators haven’t hidden the fact that they have a preference. Schumer has held fundraisers for Harris, and four senators have endorsed her.

No senator has endorsed Sanchez, according to her campaign website, but Sanchez leads in contributions and endorsements from her House colleagues.

California’s sitting senators have studiously avoided taking a stance. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Boxer haven’t contributed to or endorsed either.

Things have changed a lot since California since Boxer and Feinstein last won back-to-back open Senate seats in the early 1990s.

When the senators faced contentious re-election bids, like Boxer’s fight with Republican Carly Fiorina in 2010, the national party helped. (That race cost the campaigns nearly $30 million.) Now, California only sees the party’s Senate campaign committee when people come to raise money for other state’s candidates, said Harris’ consultant, Sean Clegg. His firm, SCN Strategies, also advised Boxer’s campaigns.

“Those races were truly on the national map and I think there’s a tendency among some of the national players just to color the state in blue,” Clegg said.

The Senate campaign committee’s absence hasn’t seemed to hurt Harris’ fundraising. Her last campaign finance report showed she’d raised $12 million for her race as of June 30, just $1 million less than Boxer did in her entire 2010 race or Feinstein did in her entire 2012 race. Sanchez had raised $3.8 million by June 30.

Sanchez campaign consultant Bill Carrick, who spent decades advising Feinstein, thinks it makes sense that the national party doesn’t want to spend money to influence the election in a big, expensive race when a Democrat will definitely win.

“Democrats are saying, well we’re going to have a Democratic senator so I’m going to give my money to Hillary,” he said. “Any reason they can come up with not to be involved, particularly financially, they choose not to do it.”

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