LOS ANGELES — California U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris claimed one of two spots in the November runoff Tuesday, moving the state attorney general into a potentially historic election.
Harris had a wide lead in early returns. She was trailed by fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a 10-term congresswoman from Orange County, who was holding steady in second place.
It’s possible voters could send two Democrats, both minority women, to the general election. Under California’s unusual election rules, only two candidates advance — the top vote-getters.
If the two Democrats prevail, it would be the first time since voters started electing senators a century ago that Republicans have been absent from California’s general election ballot for the Senate. Before that, senators were appointed by the Legislature.
Republican candidates were lagging in single digits. Duf Sundheim, a Silicon Valley lawyer and a former chairman of the California Republican Party, was leading a cluster of Republicans trailing the two Democrats.
If elected this fall, Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, would set historical marks. She would become the first Indian woman to hold a Senate seat and the second black woman elected to the Senate. Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun was elected in 1992 and served one term.
Thirty-four candidates are seeking the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Sanchez, if elected, could become one of the first Latinas to hold a U.S. Senate seat. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is also Hispanic, is the Democratic candidate for outgoing Sen. Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada.
The fact that both spots could be taken by Democrats reaffirms the party’s dominance in the nation’s most populous state.
California once was a reliable Republican state in presidential elections. But the party has seen its numbers erode for years, and it now accounts for a meager 27 percent of registered voters.
Democrats control every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature, while holding a registration edge of nearly 2.8 million voters.
With 12 Republicans on the ballot — and none widely known to voters — the GOP vote was splintered Tuesday, weakening the party’s chances of advancing a candidate to November.
Still, a surprise is possible with a large field and polls showing many undecided voters.
As fellow Democrats, Harris and Sanchez hold similar positions on many issues, including abortion rights and immigration reform.
But a fall contest would create demographic and geographical contrasts for state voters: Sanchez is Hispanic with roots in Southern California, while Harris is from the San Francisco Bay Area, and her father is black and her mother Indian.
Harris, 51, a career prosecutor, has played up winning a big settlement with banks accused of improper mortgage foreclosures and her work to defend the state’s landmark climate change law.
Sanchez, 56, has stressed her national security credentials built up during 10 terms in Washington.