LOS ANGELES — California voters elected Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, tearing down a color barrier that has stood for as long as California statehood.
Associated Press called the race minutes after the polls closed, with no votes yet reported. Early returns showed Harris winning by more than 200,000 votes.
From the outset, the Senate race between Democrats Harris and Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez possessed an air of history in the making. California had never before elected a black or Latino politician to the United States Senate, and Harris will become only the second black woman in the nation’s history to serve in Congress’ upper chamber.
Even in a state often perceived as liberal outlier, Harris’ victory to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer provides another significant marker in the march for political equality during her lifetime. Her elementary school class in the 1970s was the second one to integrate Berkeley schools. Harris was the first woman elected as San Francisco’s district attorney and the first woman to be elected as California’s attorney general.
Before the polls closed, some Harris supporters looked nervous at her party at the Exchange LA night club in downtown Los Angeles, but not about the Senate campaign.
As Hillary Clinton trailed Donald Trump in the presidential race, Harris supporters were watching the giant TV screen looming over the dance floor.
“We’re a bit concerned about what’s happening nationally,” said Angelov Farooq, director of the University of California, Riverside’s Center for Economic Development & Innovation. “But I’m excited about Kamala Harris. I think she represents the future. She’s a very authentic leader.”
One sign of Harris’ confidence: Two giant nets filled with red, white and blue balloons were fashioned to the ceiling, at the ready. The liquor shelves at the two cash bars also were fully stocked.
Immersed as a child in the 1960s Berkeley civil rights movement, the 52-year-old California attorney general weaved populist themes of justice and redemption into her Senate campaign and leaned heavily on the old-school political tactics honed during her political rise in San Francisco, responding sharply and quickly to Sanchez’s political attacks and subtly launching a few of her own.
Harris’ background attracted Lee Lovingood, 34, to vote for her.
“Her victory is going to be pretty historical, right?” Lovingood said. “She’s going to be the first African American and Indian American senator from California.” He said Harris had a more positive message while Sanchez “says some wild things.”
In the campaign for the first open Senate seat California has seen in 24 years, Harris quickly cemented herself as the Democratic Party’s favored candidate, dissuading some of California’s big-name politicians from challenging her, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Sanchez had, in a sense, the personal qualities to make it a race. When you’re running against such an established candidate, being unpredictable is a great asset,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “But as the front-runner, Harris had a really big advantage in terms of name recognition and, especially, endorsements.”
The Harris-Sanchez contest was the first major test of California’s top-two primary system, an experiment in democracy that state voters approved in 2010 in an effort to temper the highly partisan influence of the Democratic and Republican parties and give independents and moderates more clout in the political process.
In this go-around, the California Democratic Party support for Harris played a significant role in her victory, since the party endorsed her in February and provided close to $700,000 to the Harris campaign — and not a dime to Sanchez.
“I think for voters, this race was confusing,” Sonenshein added. “In a society that is extremely divided by party, where partisanship seems to color everything everyone does, it is certainly hard for voters to navigate when both candidates are in the same party.”
Harris and Sanchez topped the field of 34 candidates in the June 7 primary, sending the two Democrats to the November runoff and denying a Republican a spot on the fall ballot for the first time since the state began directly electing its U.S. senators in 1914. Harris won that race 40 percent to 18.6 percent for Sanchez.
The Senate race began just days after Boxer announced she was retiring at the end of her fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
Boxer’s departure dangled a coveted political gem in front of younger generations of California politicians who had been biding their time to run for one of the state’s most prestigious political offices. She and fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein have held their posts since 1992, and Jerry Brown is serving a historic fourth term as California governor, albeit in two separate stints. All three were born before World War II.
Harris seized the opportunity and launched her Senate bid just days after Boxer’s announcement. The two-term attorney general immediately locked up the successful San Francisco political consulting team led by veteran Ace Smith, who has worked for Hillary Clinton and Brown, began raising money and snatched up endorsements from Democrats across the nation — including from big names such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Over the following weeks, a list of California’s Democratic heavyweights flirted with a run before taking a pass, including Newsom, Villaraigosa and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer.
Sanchez, who considered a run for governor in 2010, launched her Senate bid in May 2015, four months after Harris’ announcement.
The congresswoman first rose to national prominence two decades ago when, as a little-known financial analyst from Anaheim, she beat archconservative Rep. Robert Dornan for Congress in 1996. Sanchez’s victory provided hope that the long-waited political ascension of Latinos in Orange County, as well as California and the nation, was taking root outside the urban cores of America’s biggest cities.
But Sanchez, who already was known for her flamboyant personality and off-the-cuff political style, stumbled from the outset.
The launch of her campaign was flubbed when a “draft” announcement was leaked to reporters days before she was ready. Sanchez also was singed by criticism for imitating a Native American “war cry” and for saying 5 percent to 20 percent of Muslims supported the establishment of a strict Islamic state. When President Barack Obama endorsed Harris, his longtime political ally, in July, Sanchez implied on television that it was in part because both are black.
Either way, Sanchez’s campaign never caught fire. The congresswoman, not well known to many Californians outside of Orange County, struggled to raise money.
Perhaps because a Democrat was guaranteed to win no matter the outcome, the race also failed to attract the millions of dollars in spending by super PACs, unlike other Democrat-versus-Republican Senate contests across the nation.
Sanchez out of necessity tried to patch together support from Latinos, Republicans and independents. She campaigned as a fiscal moderate and expert on national defense, touting endorsements from Republicans such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
The candidates debated just once, with the most memorable moment coming when Sanchez performed a “dab” at the end of her closing statement.
Harris hewed her campaign to the Democratic Party’s liberal base, picking up the support of major labor unions, environmental organizations and pro-choice groups, especially after Democratic Party leaders began to coalesce behind her: the governor, the president and finally Boxer and Feinstein.
Throughout her carefully orchestrated campaign, Harris was careful to avoid blunders or give Sanchez a window to close the gap. Although at times accused of being overly cautious and scripted, Harris nevertheless led comfortably in every pre-election poll.
The Harris campaign worked feverishly to undercut Sanchez’s strongest political advantage, her strong support among Latino voters. Harris won the endorsement of the influential Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion in Los Angeles, the United Farm Workers and two of the most powerful politicians in the state: Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Harris avoided attacking Sanchez directly, at least until their Oct. 5 debate, allowing her surrogates and supporters to go after the congresswoman about her comments about Obama’s endorsement and Muslims.