PD Editorial: California’s anonymous Senate contest

Raise your hand if you recognize any of these names: President Christina Grappo, Jason Krauss, Clive Grey, Eleanor Garcia, Jerry J. Laws.

No? We didn’t either.

They’re all candidates for California’s first U.S. Senate vacancy in almost a quarter-century. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat first elected in 1992, is stepping down this year, and 34 people filed for the June 7 primary. Most of them are virtually unknown.

Even the leading candidates - Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats, former state Republican Party chairmen Tom Del Beccaro, Duf Sundheim and Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz - aren’t household names.

But one of them will be California’s next senator. Despite the crowded field, including one candidate who wrote his ballot statement in binary computer code, this isn’t a sideshow. A seat in the U.S. Senate carries immense power, with a direct role in such issues as containing ISIS and encryption standards for mobile devices as well as the confirmation of executive and judicial officers.

Yet many voters have no opinion about the candidates, according to the Field Poll. With the primary less than six weeks away, nearly half of likely voters are undecided. And there won’t be many opportunities to size up the candidates, especially with the presidential campaign barreling into California like a hurricane.

Just two pre-primary debates are scheduled. The first was Monday in Stockton, where differences in style overshadowed differences in substance for the Democrats, and the Republicans offered few surprises for anyone following the contest. No gaffes, no breakout moments, probably not much change in the race.

Harris was cool, Sanchez was fiery. They called for eliminating tuition at community colleges and helping working parents, offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, tightening gun laws and easing federal regulation of marijuana.

Harris pivoted off criticism of her investigation of an anti-abortion activist to emphasize her support for reproductive rights. Sanchez insisted she isn’t anti-Muslim, but she also said no one has refuted her controversial claim that as many as 20 percent of Muslims worldwide favor a strict Islamist state.

Del Beccaro, Sundheim and Unz all faulted President Barack Obama’s economic and foreign policies, but each targeted a distinct slice of the electorate.

Del Beccaro, an unapologetic conservative, pushed a flat 15.5 percent tax rate for income and capital gains and said he wants to reduce reliance on government programs. The moderate Sundheim favors tax breaks for the poor. He supports high-tech security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border, but he opposes mass deportation of illegal immigrants.

Unz, who sponsored a 1998 ballot initiative restricting bilingual education in California, is the least orthodox of the leading GOP candidates, echoing Bernie Sanders’ call to crack down on Wall Street. He also blamed ex-Gov. Pete Wilson for Latinos abandoning the California Republican Party.

Under California’s open primary system, the top two finishers will advance to the November election regardless of party affiliation. Harris is widely expected to advance, but the second spot on the ballot is in play. This choice is important, and voters ought to have more than two opportunities to see the candidates answer questions. The next debate is May 10 in San Diego.

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