It’s been two and a half decades since California voters last filled a U.S. Senate vacancy, but with veteran lawmaker Barbara Boxer set to step down this year, voters have a chance to pick from four major candidates competing to fill her seat.
U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez is one of two Democrats in the running. After 20 years in House of Representatives, the Orange County congresswoman aims to move up to the Senate.
She has been trailing a fellow Democrat and the front-runner in the race, state Attorney General Kamala Harris. In a January survey, The Field Poll showed among likely voters who stated a preference, Harris led by 27 percent to Sanchez' 15 percent.
Two Republicans, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, trailed behind them at 3 percent each. A third Republican, Rocky Chavez, drew support from 7 percent of the respondents, but he has since withdrawn from the race.
Significantly, a large segment of those polled, 44 percent, were undecided. It's the voters in that group who Sanchez hopes to sway to her side. Even if she comes in second in California's June 7 primary election, she can survive to the general election under the state's open primary contest in which the top two vote-getters move on to the November ballot regardless of their party affiliation.
The Senate race is the biggest political competition since California adopted top-two primary in 2011, and it likely will force a faceoff between the two well-known Democrats.
On the campaign trail
During a February evening in the city of Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County, music played in one room of a Mexican restaurant that also doubles as a nightclub.
In another room, a campaign event was about to get underway for Loretta Sanchez. The congresswoman sat down to explain why she thinks California voters should elect her to the Senate.
"I know how to work with Democrats and with Republicans. So I think I will take that knowledge over to the Senate with me," she said.
She has been a member of the House since 1996, when she narrowly beat Orange County Republican Bob Dornan.
Her rankings among special interest and labor groups as compiled by the elections site VoterSmart.org are aligned with her politics as a moderate Democrat: high among groups like Planned Parenthood and lower as rated by the National Rifle Association.
Sanchez points out that she is the only candidate running who has a track record in Congress. She is proud of her role in the passage of revised sexual assault provisions in the military justice code and sits on the House armed services and homeland security committees.
When asked how she differs from Harris, Sanchez turned not to the issues that separate them, but to her upbringing.
"My parents are Mexican immigrants, came here with nothing, settled in Anaheim, had seven children," she said.
If Sanchez wins, she would be the first Latina senator. Should Harris prevail, her win would also be notable. Harris' mother is from India and her father grew up in Jamaica.
Loretta Sanchez' younger sister, Linda Sanchez, is also a congresswoman, representing the 38th district covering Montebello, Pico Rivera, Norwalk and Artesia. At her sister's political event, Linda Sanchez rallied the audience.
"She's the number two Democrat on both the homeland security committee and the armed services committee and, let me tell you, she knows her s---," Linda Sanchez said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
Trailing in support
More than 20 Los Angeles County officials at the event endorsed Loretta Sanchez for the Senate race. But Sanchez found less enthusiasm at the California Democrats State Convention in February, landing the endorsement of just 19 percent of the delegates to Harris' 78 percent.
When it comes to issues like immigration, job creation and the environment, Sanchez and Harris are not far apart. One difference between them has emerged on the issue of Apple Inc.'s resistance to the FBI's request to crack into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists: Sanchez is backing Apple and Harris is not taking sides.
Sanchez speaks of banning gun shows and limiting gun magazines to 10-round capacities. She’s endorsed a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage in California to $15 an hour and backs healthcare coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
Los Angeles County Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who is running for a Los Angeles County supervisor seat, is among those who is supporting Sanchez.
"I think she’s effective in a way of communicating to the American people some of the issues, particularly as it relates to homeland security," Hahn said.
Sanchez' communication style has landed Sanchez in trouble in the past. She has taken heat for making a Native American war cry gesture after a mixup in referring to a person from India and a Native American. She apologized for the gaffe, but it continues to haunt her politically.
Then she drew criticism for stating on Larry King's show that up to 20 percent of Muslims want an Islamic caliphate. In that case, she did not apologize, but stood by her statement.
“I have spoken to those comments and the reality is that there’s no one who has done more for the Muslim American community than I have, " she told KPCC.
Bill Whalen of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said there's a clear difference in the way Sanchez and Harris speak.
"Harris is quiet, reserved," he said. "Loretta Sanchez is a little more earthy, and a little more out there. And she has shall we say a checkered record when it comes to comments she has made that are sometimes politically incorrect and then sometimes just some tone-deaf political judgments," he said.
Whalen points to one moment in 2000 when Sanchez tried to organize a political fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion during the Democratic National Convention. Under political pressure, she later relocated it to Universal Studios CityWalk.
Asked what she learned from the reaction to her fundraiser, Sanchez suggested sexism was behind the kerfuffle.
"I learned that people are harder on women than men," she said. Sanchez maintains that male politicians have held fundraisers at the Playboy Mansion and did not receive the flak she attracted.
Theresa Hennessey, Playboy Enterprises spokeswoman, said fundraisers have been held at the mansion for politicians like former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and ex-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Bradley served from 1973 to 1993 while Washington held office in the 1980s.
Voter turnout may be key
Sanchez met up with KPCC recently in Orange County in the city of Placentia, about a mile north from where she grew up. In high school, she worked cleaning houses with her mom on weekends and scooped ice cream at a local Save On.
During the visit, Sanchez ducked inside a shop called Mexico Supermarket, where pinatas hung from the ceiling. In the back, a cook chopped beef for carne asada tacos.
While Sanchez visited the store, Placentia resident Brian Richards grabbed her attention.
"I wish we had more like you," Richards said, assuring Sanchez that he'd vote for her.
But Sanchez also met someone who may represent her biggest challenge: people who see no reason to vote.
Recent college grad Taylor Chun, the store manager, worked behind the cash register. She told Sanchez she hoped someday to become a wedding planner.
After the congresswoman left, Chun said she does not plan to vote. She would like to see things change in her neighborhood, such as more jobs. But Chun said she doesn’t think a new senator will make a difference.
"I feel like nobody really is going to help us," the young cashier said. "They get the votes, they win and then after that, it’s like nothing is really changing."
Therein lies a problem: voter turnout could have a major impact on Sanchez’ campaign.
Although Southern California has a larger population, voters in Northern California where Harris has her base cast their ballots at higher rates.
Political analysts point out Sanchez will need Southern Californians like Chun to vote if the congresswoman is to have a better chance at defeating Harris. Also key to her success are Latino voters, a group that historically records low voter turnout rates.
“If you’re Sanchez … you have to do two things right now,” Whalen said. Appeal to “Latino voters, primarily in Southern California, and then secondly, Southern California Democrats writ large."
Copyright 2016 KPCC. To see more election coverage, visit http://www.kpcc.org.
Series: California Counts
California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.