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5 Things To Watch For In Tonight’s US Senate Debate

Shown left to right are U.S. Senate candidates Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro and Ron Unz.
Courtesy photos
Shown left to right are U.S. Senate candidates Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro and Ron Unz.

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.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think the people running for Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat were in the witness protection program. You never see or hear from them!

That’s an exaggeration, of course. (In fact, the three leading Republicans were on KQED Newsroom Friday night.) But this race has been completely overshadowed by America’s Favorite Reality Show, a.k.a the presidential primaries.


Monday night is the first chance to see the top five contenders on the same stage. Attorney General Kamala Harris, Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, former California Republican Party chairs Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro and political activist and high-tech entrepreneur Ron Unz will square off in Stockton at a debate sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle, KCRA-TV (Sacramento) and University of the Pacific.

Based on California’s primary system, the top two finishers in the June election will advance to November.

The latest Field Poll showed the two Democrats — Harris and Sanchez — on top with 27 and 14 percent respectively. Among the Republicans, Unz had 5 percent followed by Del Beccaro at 3 percent and Sundheim at 2 percent.

Do the math: That means almost half of voters are undecided. As the candidates seek to move the needle (or in Harris’ case, avoid making a big mistake) on tonight’s stage, here are five things to look for:

  1. Incoming missiles for Harris. The San Francisco Democrat leads every poll, but hasn’t closed the deal with voters. How aggressively will Sanchez attack her fellow Democrat? And will the Republicans focus more on Harris or Sanchez, both of whom stand between them and Round Two in November?
  2. How safe will Harris play it? The AG is known for being cautious to a fault. She’s wary of the media and tends to emphasize tough-on-crime credentials unless she’s before a partisan Democratic crowd, where she plays up social issues and criminal justice reform. Harris is almost assured of a spot in the November runoff. Will she consolidate her Democratic base, or begin a move to the middle that could help her later?
  3. Which Loretta Sanchez will show up? She can come off as flaky and a bit of a loose cannon (see past remarks on Muslims and Native Americans), but Sanchez is also the most senior female member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Homeland Security. She loves to mention that she was ranked one of the 25 most influential women in Congress by Roll Call Magazine last year. Given the San Bernardino shootings and voter concerns about security, how much does she play up those credentials?
  4. Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Becarro seem to not really like each other much. The two former GOP party chairs had a heated exchange on KQED Newsroom Friday. Each accuses the other of misrepresenting his record. Will they continue that debate tonight or train their focus on the Democrats?
  5. What does Ron Unz want? In 1994, the quirky political gadfly surprised many by getting a third of the vote against incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson in the Republican primary. This time around, Unz says flat-out he can’t win, adding that neither can the other Republicans. He says he entered the race to defend Proposition 227, his 1998 ballot measure that ended bilingual education in California. A November proposition could reverse that policy. So how much time will Unz spend talking about an issue that’s not on voters’ minds at all?

You can watch the debate at 6 p.m. on


The next Senate debate featuring all these candidates is May 10 in San Diego, an event co-sponsored by KQED, KPBS, KPCC and Capital Public Radio.