STOCKTON — California’s Democratic state attorney general cemented her front-runner status Monday night in a debate that spanned substantive policy issues between the top five candidates but yielded few zingers or breakthrough moments for voters trying to sort through a large field.
Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep Loretta Sanchez, a fellow Democrat who is vying for second place in the June primary, distinguished themselves dramatically in style, with Harris maintaining her typically reserved, poised approach and Sanchez delivering a shoot-from-the-hip approach, but differed little when it came to policy. Both backed free community college and expanded Pell grants and said they would strengthen gun laws and loosen federal drug policy on marijuana.
With only six weeks remaining until the primary, the top five candidates vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer met for the first debate of their campaign at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Harris said she wants to bring a rational approach to issues such as drug policy and gun control that doesn’t cast them as all-or-nothing choices.
“It’s just pretty simple, reasonable stuff. If somebody has been convicted of a felony that proves them to be a dangerous person, they should not be able to own a gun. If somebody has been found by a court to be mentally ill to the point that they are danger to themselves or other people they should not be able to own or possess a gun,” she said.
Republicans Tom Del Beccaro, Duf Sundheim and Ron Unz acknowledge they’re hoping to come in second to Harris, as does Sanchez, a fireband from conservative Orange County who played up her roles as the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
“I know the tough votes. They haven’t been under the pressure,” Sanchez said of her competitors. “I said no to the Iraq war, I said no to the so-called Patriot Act, and I said no to the Wall Street bailout.”
The first open Senate seat in decades was expected to attract outsize attention and a strong field of candidates, but so far has drawn mostly yawns from voters and prompted a low-profile campaign, although there will be 34 candidates on the June 7 ballot. Polls show about half of likely voters remain unengaged in the race and undecided about whom to support.
A Field Poll earlier this month found Harris in the lead with support from 27 percent of likely voters and Sanchez with 14 percent. The three Republicans included in Monday’s debate were all within the poll’s sampling of error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Del Beccaro used his highest profile opportunity to date to take a few shots at Harris and cast himself as the only candidate with a free-market approach, noting several times that he wants to reduce reliance on government programs, not expand them.
“They want a government solution to this but government can’t solve everything,” Del Beccaro said of the other candidates on stage.
Unz, a physicist and entrepreneur and two former state GOP chairmen, Del Beccaro and Sundheim, were all within the margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points in the poll.
Unz is best known for backing a 1998 initiative to end bilingual education in California. The moderate Sundheim is campaigning as the anti-Donald Trump candidate in blue California, pledging a tone of compromise and adaptability.
Democrats are strongly favored to retain the seat in November. The party controls every statewide office and holds a 2.7 million edge in voter registration.