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On display at California Senate debate: future of Democratic Party

finding the patterns

The race for California's open US Senate seat features two Democrats: a woman of black and Asian descent and a Latina. 

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    California US Senate candidate California Attorney General Kamala Harris (l.) speaks as Rep. Loretta Sanchez (r.) listens during a debate Wednesday in Los Angeles.
    Mark J. Terrill/AP
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When college senior Sofia Lopez learned her school was hosting the only debate ahead of the election for California’s open United States Senate seat, she jumped at the chance to watch.  

Partly, she just wanted to learn more about the race, which has been eclipsed by the presidential campaign. But Ms. Lopez, a political science major, also wanted to take part in a historical moment, as two women of color vie for one of the nation’s most prestigious elected positions.

“The fact that they’re of color, it’s inspiring to people like me,” says Lopez, a Chicana, from her seat at a student watch party two floors above the debate venue at California State University, Los Angeles. “We’re finally getting the chance to be in that space.”

State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats, are the first to run for an open US Senate seat since California in 2011 adopted a “top two” primary. The format guarantees that the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Perhaps as unprecedented as the setup of the race, however, are the candidates themselves – and how they point to the future of the Democratic Party. Ms. Harris, who is of black and Asian descent, and Representative Sanchez, who is Latina, are a perfect picture of the demographic groups who pushed President Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012: black, Hispanic, and women voters.

This fall, Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House largely depends on her ability to get these groups to the polls. She leads Donald Trump by 18 points among women and 73 points among African Americans, according to a CBS News poll. She's up by 48 points among Latinos, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

In this diverse and deep blue state, those trends are even more apparent. And this fall's Senate election is acting as a time-lapse glimpse at the evolution of the party. 

“It’s not an accident that in a political party that enjoys tremendous popular support from female and minority voters that the two candidates for the United States Senate are female and minorities,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

It’s too soon to expect a widespread browning of elected officials, or an equalization of men and women candidates, even among Democrats. Still, Professor Schnur and others see a broader – albeit gradual – transformation taking place in California and nationwide.

“Leaders of both parties have become increasingly aware that recruiting and supporting candidates from a more diverse range of backgrounds is in their party’s long-term interest,” Schnur says. “Democrats draw from a much deeper pool, but you’ve certainly seen evidence of Republicans doing the same thing.”

Moving beyond 1992

In some ways, the race between Sanchez and Harris is a step forward from the 1992 contest that saw Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who retires this year, win California’s two Senate seats. That election cycle – dubbed “the year of the woman” by pundits and the media – marked the first time two women from the same state ran for the US Senate and won.

“It was a very big deal. There was talk about a new day for gender equality,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

“The Democratic Party was moving [forward],” he adds. “But we were some years away from a diverse party at the leadership level.”

The Harris-Sanchez matchup suggests the party is closer to that moment than ever, Professor Sonenshein says.

“It’s a pretty dramatic thing,” he says.

Yet the race has received relatively scant coverage, as furor around the presidential election consumes media and voter attention. Harris’s consistent lead over Sanchez in the polls has also taken some tension out of the contest.

'Hope for the future'

The fact that California has had two women representing the state at the Senate level for nearly a quarter-century might have dulled the impact of seeing two women of color reach for the same heights, notes Jan Leighley, a professor who specializes in politics and voter behavior at American University in Washington.

“Once you have a first, [the next] is kind of less important” to voters, Professor Leighley says. 

The relative silence around the race, however, could itself be considered a mark of progress, some say.

“It’s not too long ago that a campaign between two candidates of these ethnic heritages would have received much more attention simply for that fact,” says Schnur at USC. “In 2016, it’s still notable that an African-American woman is running against a Latina, but it’s not the stuff of headlines the way it might have been a few years ago.”

Diego Guerrero (l.) and Luis de Leon, students at California State University, Los Angeles, discuss the California Senate race at a post-debate reception on campus Wednesday. Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor

Still, the significance of the race resonated with many of those present.

“It shows more progress toward giving everybody a fair chance,” says Diego Guerrero, a junior studying political science.

“It’s like, we have great ideas too. We have something to say,” says Lopez, the political science major at the debate watch. “It feels like something new and fresh.”

“It’s very important for the nation, for California, for young voters in this university,” adds Diane Gonzalez, a public relations consultant who attended the event. “It gives me enormous hope for the future.”

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