In California Senate Race, Will Business Groups Back a Democrat?

Underdog Loretta Sanchez angling for conservative support

Rep. Loretta Sanchez hopes to capitalize on her dual reputation as a social progressive and a Blue Dog Democrat in the California Senate race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Loretta Sanchez hopes to capitalize on her dual reputation as a social progressive and a Blue Dog Democrat in the California Senate race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 20, 2016 at 5:00am

Loretta Sanchez’s campaign against Kamala Harris in the Democrat-on-Democrat California Senate race looks like a long shot.  

She’s underfunded, didn’t win even 20 percent of the vote in last week’s primary, and is running against a candidate endorsed by the likes of Jerry Brown and Elizabeth Warren .  

But the congresswoman from Southern California might find an unlikely ally in her bid to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer: the business community.  

Business leaders who generally favor the Republican Party in California say they are considering backing Sanchez over Harris, convinced that the “Blue Dog” Democrat Sanchez would be a better ally in the Senate than the more liberal Harris, the state’s attorney general.  

Their support would be a major help to Sanchez, whose campaign has spent months searching for a base of support. The Democratic Party, including many progressive activists and groups like EMILY’s List, have almost uniformly lined up behind Harris.  

“There’s an understanding that Loretta has a stronger understanding of how to grow jobs in California,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.  

Lapsley said that he and many in the business community are still assessing the candidates and November’s expected turnout patterns to determine if getting involved makes sense.  

But he called Sanchez’s campaign “viable” and praised her political brain trust — led by longtime California consultant Bill Carrick — as “top-notch.” What’s more, Lapsley indicated that business groups’ involvement in this year’s Senate race could be a test run for 2018, when California voters pick a successor to Gov. Jerry Brown.  

California’s primary system awards the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to advance to the general election. In a deeply blue state like California, which hasn’t elected a statewide GOP official in almost a decade, that could mean two Democrats could make the final ballot.  

“This is uncharted territory,” said Lapsley, who estimated he would have a firmer idea of how involved groups would get in 30 to 60 days. “It’s very exciting. So it’s just gonna take time to figure out. We’re watching on a lot of different levels.”  

Sanchez appears to be reciprocating their interest. In her victory speech after last week’s primary, she said she would “work with businesses, labor leaders, chambers of commerce, and workers to strengthen our economy.”  

“She’s a social progressive, but she’s a Blue Dog Democrat that looks at fiscal programs to see if they are paid for,” said Luis Vizcaino, spokesman for Sanchez’s campaign. “And I think that appeals to many Californians, who want somebody aligned with their social views but at the same time is fiscally moderate.”  

Regardless of the business community’s involvement in the race, Harris will be a formidable foe for Sanchez. She has already won statewide election twice as attorney general and received more than double Sanchez’s vote total in last week’s primary, 2 million to 943,000.  

Harris is also a rising star in the Democratic Party nationally, someone trying to become only the second African-American woman ever to earn a spot in the Senate. She’s an ally of President Obama , has drawn buzz as a potential future vice presidential pick, and raised more than $11 million for her campaign thus far — nearly three times more than Sanchez’s haul.  

A defeat in the Senate race, after perceived threats like Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa passed on runs, would count as one of the year’s biggest political shocks.  

“Kamala is in an uncontrollable train with no breaks going downhill,” said Michael Trujillo, an adviser to Villaraigosa and Harris supporter. “And Loretta has to climb the steepest mountain with no ropes. That’s the dynamic both campaigns are living under.”  

The Harris campaign itself dismissed the likelihood that Sanchez, who is attempting to become the first Latina to win a place in the Senate, could assemble a large enough coalition of moderate Democrats, Republicans, and Hispanic voters to topple the attorney general.  

Exit polls showed that Harris won a majority of congressional districts represented by Latino lawmakers, top Harris officials told reporters on a conference call last week, and she performed well with Republicans and moderates in all parts of the state.  

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released this week found Harris leading Sanchez 47 percent to 22 percent. The survey also found that 64 percent of Republicans said they would not cast a ballot for either candidate in November.   

For Sanchez, a strong start to her general election campaign might be essential to attract enough money and support to survive the summer. Strategists watching her campaign suggested it will likely release an internal poll soon, showing a surge in support for the congresswoman when paired head to head with Harris.  

Still, the campaign needs to crawl before it can walk. The question on many people’s minds isn’t whether Sanchez can win, said veteran California Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski, but whether she even has a chance.  

“Right now people are questioning her viability,” said Kapolczynski, who ran all four of Boxer’s successful campaigns for Senate. “She needs to answer that quickly in order to move on and start to build a statewide campaign.”  

Money and support from Republicans and business donors might also come with an electoral price, Democratic strategists say. If Sanchez were trying to court Democrats and Hispanic voters at the same time as she accepts big money from the GOP, those groups might rebel.  

“You’re handing Kamala an easy thing to say, ‘Look the same people who fund Loretta Sanchez are funding Donald Trump,’ ” Trujillo said. “Once you do that, you hand Kamala Harris an even bigger instrument to use with Latino voters.”  

Contact Roarty at and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty

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