- Associated Press - Monday, November 7, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - California’s lackluster U.S. Senate contest neared a historic end Monday and voters pondered a long list of ballot questions that could legalize marijuana, end the death penalty and slap cigarette smokers with a $2-a-pack tax increase.

It was a day that mixed drama, uncertainty and, in other races, a growing sense of inevitability. Candidates were out across the state making last-minute appeals for votes, including in close contests that could factor in control of the U.S. House.

In the presidential race, independent polling points to a commanding edge for Hillary Clinton in the strongly Democratic state, with Donald Trump on track for a historically poor showing for a Republican nominee.

Democrats have carried the state in six successive presidential contests dating to 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first term. The last Republican nominee to carry California was George H.W. Bush, in 1988.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat, was in Los Angeles, urging support for Proposition 61 that supporters say would save the state money on prescription drug costs.

Polling suggests voters are leaning toward freeing pot smokers to light up, but San Francisco Bay Area physician Tom Sheridan said it would be a mistake.

“I think it’s a health care issue, not a we-can-all-get-high issue,” said Sheridan, 62, after casting his ballot in the town of Lafayette.

“The young adult brain, we know scientifically is still developing until the age of 25, and I think there are long-term consequences with people thinking, ‘It’s legal, so I can do it,’ ” he added.

In the Democrat-against-Democrat Senate race, state Attorney General Kamala Harris entered the last full day of campaigning as the favorite to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal icon who is stepping down after nearly a quarter century in the Senate.

Harris had a handful of events scheduled, including a rally at the University of Southern California. At a stop in downtown Los Angeles, Sanchez appeared with her sister, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, and other supporters.

“It is time to elect a qualified Southern Californian Latina,” Linda Sanchez said.

Statewide turnout based on mail-in ballots appears to be running roughly equal to the 2012 presidential election, though large numbers of younger and Hispanic voters have yet to enter the mix, said Paul Mitchell of nonpartisan research firm Political Data Inc.

The state witnessed a surge of newly registered younger and Hispanic voters this year, but they tend to be among the most unreliable on Election Day. Latinos make up about a quarter of registered voters, but so far comprise only about 15 percent of the returned mail ballots, according to the research firm.

Over half of new voter registrations this year came from millennials - younger people who tend to be more liberal than older Californians.

Across the state, there are more than 400 proposals on ballots to raise taxes or borrow money as governments struggle to keep up with costs for everything from road paving to skyrocketing pension obligations.

Voters are being asked to legalize the recreational use of medical marijuana 20 years after the state first allowed medicinal pot use. There are two proposals on the death penalty - one would repeal capital punishment, the other would speed up appeals so convicted murderers are actually executed.

The Senate contest marks a generational and demographic shift in the state that is growing increasingly diverse in population and favorable for Democrats.

The Democrats-only race marks the first time since voters started electing senators a century ago that Republicans will be absent from California’s general election ballot, reaffirming the GOP’s diminished stature in the state.

Boxer, who is white and turns 76 this week, will be replaced by one of two Baby Boomers.

Harris, 52, could become the first Indian woman and the second black woman elected to the Senate. Harris’ father is Jamaican and her mother is from India.

If 56-year-old Sanchez pulls off an upset, the daughter of Mexican immigrants could become one of the first Latinas to hold a U.S. Senate seat.

The matchup between Harris and Sanchez is seen as a harbinger of things to come in the nation’s most populous state. Voters could increasingly find only two Democrats to pick from for top offices in November elections.

Despite its historic dimension, the contest was overshadowed by the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and ignored by many voters, especially Republicans who ended up without a candidate. And as two Democrats they largely agree on many issues, including the need to fight climate change and protect abortion rights.

The two Democrats emerged from a 34-candidate primary in June, in which only the top two vote-getters advanced to November. None of the Republicans managed to break out of single digits in voting.

Harris became the favorite of the Democratic establishment, winning endorsements from President Barack Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown, Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. With Harris the pick of the party establishment, Sanchez became an outsider who openly sought Republican votes and criticized Obama for backing her rival.

Their rivalry revolved around who was best suited for the job - a career prosecutor with liberal credentials who touted her experience fighting big banks and environmental criminals, or a 10-term member of the House known as a moderate, with experience in national security and military affairs.

Sanchez struggled to raise money and was slowed by verbal flubs, at one point apologizing after a videotape surfaced showing her making a whooping cry in reference to Native Americans.

___

AP writer Jocelyn Gecker in Lafayette contributed to this report.


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