- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2016

LOS ANGELES — For the first time in state history, California faces the very real possibility of a Senate election with no Republican candidate.

Polls continue to show Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez — both Democrats — leading the packed 34-candidate primary field. Under the system approved by voters in 2010, only the top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary will appear on the November ballot.

“Never before has there been no Republican on the ballot for U.S. Senate in a California general election,” said Richard Winger, editor of the website Ballot Access News. “There have been a few California elections with no Democrat for U.S. Senate: 1934, 1940 and 1952.”

Such an outcome would represent a new low for the California Republican Party, which has seen its voter registration dwindle to 27 percent. No Republican has won the Senate contest in California since Pete Wilson in 1988.

“It’s a terrible thing for Republicans because they’ll be shut out of the November election, and that will be a big blow to party morale,” said John J. Pitney, politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

At the same time, an all-Democrat contest isn’t necessarily great news for the Democrats either. In a Senate race that the party was all but guaranteed to have won anyway, a Harris-versus-Sanchez battle means exposing the party’s ideological rifts on the big stage at a time when Democrats are struggling to unite their warring liberal and progressive wings.

“There’s no question that the top-two primary has exacerbated the divisions within the state Democratic Party,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “And it would exacerbate the divisions within the state Republican Party too, if the state Republican Party were big enough to have divisions.”

Ms. Harris, who leads the crowded field in the polls, has positioned herself to Ms. Sanchez’s left, touting her endorsements from progressive icons such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and labor organizer Dolores Huerta, as well as her targeting of the banking and oil-and-gas industries.

A Field Poll released in April showed Ms. Harris backed by 27 percent of likely primary voters, followed by Ms. Sanchez with 14 percent. The three leading Republicans — former state party chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim and ex-businessman Ron Unz — each registered at 5 percent or below.

The November contest to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer would be the first California Senate race to feature a one-party duel. The top-two primary was approved by voters in 2010 and survived a legal challenge the following year.

The system was in place for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s 2012 re-election bid, but no strong Democrat challenged her. She defeated Republican Elizabeth Emken with 63 percent of the vote.

The GOP’s chances of sneaking a candidate past Ms. Sanchez sustained a devastating blow when Republican Donald Trump cleared the presidential field with his decisive victory in the May 3 Indiana primary.

“First of all, the Republican presidential race has been settled, so Republican turnout is going to be much lower,” Mr. Schnur said. “The Democrats are going to be turning out for Hillary Clinton and [Bernard] Sanders, but there’s much less incentive at the top of the ticket for Republicans to turn out, which hurts their chances in the Senate race.”

The last-minute decision to enter the race by Mr. Unz, known for his libertarian leanings and English-language advocacy, didn’t help.

“When you have two Republicans splitting the vote, the chances of one of them pushing ahead of Sanchez was pretty good, but when that same Republican vote is split between three candidates, it becomes less likely,” Mr. Schnur said.

A two-Democrat Senate contest would also place liberal California donors in the awkward position of sinking resources into defeating a fellow Democrat instead of spending strategically to beat back Republicans in races elsewhere.

The result is both Ms. Harris and Ms. Sanchez could struggle with fundraising, especially outside California.

“The interesting thing in the Senate race is if it is Sanchez and Harris, neither of them will be able to raise a lot of national money because Democratic donors will figure, ‘Why bother? Whoever wins will be a Democrat, and that’s all we care about,’” said Mr. Pitney.

A member of the House committees on armed services and homeland security, Ms. Sanchez has positioned herself as the national security candidate. She drew headlines in December by saying that 5 percent to 20 percent of Muslims worldwide want to “go after what they consider Western norms.”

Sanchez is somewhat more centrist. She’s been better at building alliances with the business community, and while I wouldn’t call her a hawk, she’s been fairly centrist on the [House] Armed Services Committee,” said Mr. Pitney.

Oddly enough, a Trump presidential candidacy could benefit Ms. Sanchez both by bringing out Republicans who might regard her as the lesser of two evils, and by energizing Hispanic voters put off by his calls for a wall on the southern border.

“She came under criticism for saying a large percentage of the Muslim world supported jihad, and she hasn’t backed down from that,” Mr. Pitney said. “And a lot of people who are going to vote for Trump in November will look for a tiebreaker between her and Harris, and that will be it. So she could end up building a strange-bedfellows coalition of anti-Trump Hispanics and anti-Muslim Republicans.”

While Ms. Harris is clearly the Democratic establishment’s pick, don’t count out Ms. Sanchez, he said.

“On virtually every issue, they’re on the same side, but Sanchez may be slightly more conservative on national security, and that will get her the lion’s share of Republican votes,” Mr. Pitney said. “Put that together with Hispanic turnout, and I think she’s very competitive.”

California voters enacted the top-two primary system — which is also used in Louisiana and Washington — at the urging of former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hoped to shake up the state’s notoriously safe seats and encourage more moderate candidates.

Analysts say that’s been the case in the state legislature, where pro-business groups have backed moderate Democrats against progressives in Democratic districts, resulting in the emergence of a Blue Dog wing.

About two dozen California legislative and congressional races have featured one-party contests since 2011 in the general election, most of those involving the state’s majority Democrats.

The downside has been a steep decline in voter turnout, which hit historic lows in 2014, in part because voters without a candidate from their party didn’t bother to show up at the ballot box.

“The hoped-for consequence was the increase in the number of more centrist candidates,” said Mr. Schnur. “The unanticipated consequence was the drop-off in voter turnout in the nonrepresented party.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping for the best in the June 7 primary but preparing for more heartache.

“Ordinarily, I’m a fan of the open primary and other like-minded proposals that seek to move the Golden State to a more common-sense middle ground,” said Hoover Institution Research Fellow Bill Whalen, a former Wilson speechwriter, in a Sacramento Bee op-ed. “But in 2016, the open primary fails us.”

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