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Sanchez Stumbles Prompt SoCal Angst

Sanchez is running for Senate in California. (By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sanchez had a rough week announcing a Senate bid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Long shut out of statewide office, Southern California Democrats saw a glimmer of hope last week, when Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez announced a bid for the Golden State’s open Senate seat.

But a series of stumbles out of the gate has left some of them hesitant about whether they will back her uphill battle against state Attorney General Kamala Harris — with some waiting on Rep. Xavier Becerra, who is still considering jumping into the primary.

Becerra, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus who represents downtown Los Angeles, has signaled interest in the race and has said he will make an announcement on his plans by the August congressional recess.

Multiple Democrats who attended the California Democratic Party’s annual convention told CQ Roll Call that Becerra asked activists to hold out on supporting other candidates.

“I think it’s important that a Southern California Democrat is stepping forward, but there may be others,” Rep. Mark Takano, who represents the Southern California-based 41st District, told CQ Roll Call before the convention. “The bottom line is I welcome the fact that she’s in the race, but I’m not taking sides at this point.”

It has been a rough few days for Sanchez.

A mere three days after announcing her candidacy, Sanchez mimicked a Native American “war cry” at an event at the state party convention. She apologized, but “no doubt hurt herself,” said Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the California Democratic Party.

And just before making her candidacy official, a draft email about her plans leaked, leading Sanchez to frantically deny her announcement was imminent. She ultimately launched her bid in the exact manner the draft email laid out.

Her early errors — especially the weekend remark dubbed racially insensitive — could leave donors crucial to her success hesitant to contribute to her campaign.

“I mean there were people looking for an alternative, and then she goes and offends one major group that’s looking for an alternative,” said a Democratic operative who’s worked on California campaigns, referring to the Native American tribes that are unhappy with Harris’ stance on land issues. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for her to hunker down and reinvent herself, but I think it’s going to be difficult.”

Harris — who hails from San Francisco — announced a bid days after Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement, leaving this Senate seat vacant for the first time in more than two decades.

Harris has already run two statewide races, amassed a $2.2 million war chest and earned endorsements from top Democrats both in and out of California. Her geographic base in San Francisco also gives her an advantage, as voters there historically vote in higher numbers in primaries.

Sanchez represents a tiny sliver of the state’s massive population. She’s behind on the fundraising front with just $540,000 in her campaign account — a small sum for a Senate race in one of the country’s most expensive places for a statewide bid.

Despite recognizing she may have damaged her candidacy, Bauman suggested the congresswoman shouldn’t be underestimated.

“I’ve seen Loretta Sanchez do things that nobody thought she could do; she has the reputation as the person who defeated B-1 Bob,” he said, referring to former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the Republican Sanchez defeated in 1996 to come to Congress.

Sanchez is known on Capitol Hill as an outsized personality.

In 2000, as a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Sanchez angered Democratic leaders when she planned a fundraiser at the Playboy mansion. In 2007, she quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, accusing now-former Rep. Joe Baca of calling her a “whore.” Three years later, she made news when she told Univision, in a Spanish-language interview, “the Vietnamese” were trying to take her seat.

Sanchez’s Orange County-based 46th District is safe Democratic territory and her mistakes never imperiled her re-election bids. President Barack Obama carried her district with 61 percent in 2012.

Bill Carrick, a California Democratic operative serving as a top aide to Sanchez’s campaign, dismissed any notion she is in trouble after the weekend.

“I talked to a lot of people” at the state party convention, he said. “There was the obviously the events of the weekend, but the delegates that I spoke to were not anything but positive.”

Democrats say she will try and coalesce the state’s growing Hispanic population. Party operatives say Sanchez will run to make history as the first Hispanic woman in the Senate.

“There’s time to fix this and to get back on her feet, but she doesn’t have a lot of room for error in this campaign against Kamala Harris, who is right now chugging along,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist and managing director at SKDKnickerbocker. “She’s gotta be near perfect.”


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