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First Out Of the Gate, Harris Never Looked Back In U.S. Senate Race

Photo by Maya Sugarman / KPCC

Kamala Harris greets a crowd in Los Angeles before giving a victory speech, Nov. 8, 2016. Harris won the California’s U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has seized the state’s open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.

A preliminary exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research found Harris easily defeated her fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Sanchez faced an uphill battle ever since the June primary, when Harris won 53 out of California’s 58 counties. Sanchez barely edged out Harris in her own Orange County.

Photo by Stuart Palley / KPCC

Rep. Loretta Sanchez speaks to supporters, Nov. 8, 2016.

The attorney general was boosted by her close ties to President Obama, the state Democratic Party, labor unions and other key constituencies. In the final weeks, she won endorsements from Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Sean Clegg, a key Harris campaign strategist, says her quick decision to jump into the race less than a week after Boxer announced her retirement in 2015 framed the contest from the beginning.

“Getting into the ring early and standing up as the most formidable candidate forced every potential candidate to analyze the race through the lens of: ‘Can I beat Kamala Harris?'” Clegg said.

“Tom Steyer, the billion-dollar man, Antonio Villaraigosa (former Los Angeles mayor) and leading members of Congress all concluded they couldn’t,” Clegg added.

Indeed, Democrats like Los Angeles Rep. Xavier Becerra or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti might have given Harris a stronger race than Sanchez did.

Having twice run and won statewide, Harris benefited from higher name recognition than Sanchez. And Sanchez, who stressed her immigrant roots and middle-class upbringing, was never able to make serious inroads into key Democratic constituencies. Her reckless comments about Muslims and Native Americans didn’t help.

Although Sanchez was running to become the first Latina senator in the United States, Harris outmaneuvered her in the Latino community, winning an endorsement from La Opinion newspaper in the primary and from farm labor leader Dolores Huerta.

Sanchez was left trying to win over Republicans who found themselves without a candidate in the general election. Even there, Harris exceeded expectations in pre-election polls.

It’s a remarkable rise for Harris, whose first statewide race for attorney general in 2010 was so close that it took more than three weeks to determine that the San Francisco district attorney had defeated Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, an upset few predicted.

In January Harris heads to Washington with a national profile and rising expectations, not unlike Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren did. Job one might be convincing her new colleagues that she’s not a showboat, but rather a substantive legislator they can do business with in the U.S. Senate.

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio. Our coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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