Politics & Policy

What a Majority-Minority Electorate Means for California’s Senate Race

California AG Kamala Harris (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

This week, Loretta Sanchez, a Democratic House member from Orange County, Calif., announced that she will run for U.S. Senate in 2016. She’ll be running against Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general and by all accounts the prohibitive favorite.

Until recently, the expectation had been that Harris would dominate the field, as she had already dissuaded Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, from running. Yet Sanchez has a reputation as a quirky maverick, and it seems that she’s determined to make her case. One assumes that a few other no-hopers will eventually enter the fray, but for now Harris and Sanchez look like the two most serious candidates to succeed Barbara Boxer, the 74-year-old Brooklyn native who’s been representing California in the Senate since 1993.

The race between Sanchez and Harris offers a glimpse at California’s political future. Sanchez is the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants who settled in Anaheim, a town that has gone from being a rustic and largely white suburb in the 1960s, when Sanchez was born, to a sprawling majority-Latino city of 330,000 today. Harris is also the daughter of immigrants, yet her father, originally from Jamaica, was an economist at Stanford, while her mother, originally from India, was a physician. Though from strikingly different class backgrounds, Sanchez and Harris are both among the 20 million U.S.-born adults who have at least one immigrant parent, and we’re about to see many more of these second-generation Americans running for office, particularly in California.

California first became a majority-minority state in 2000, and in a recent report, Ruy Teixeira, William H. Frey, and Robert Griffin estimate that its eligible voting population will become majority-minority in 2016, or just one year from now. That makes California just the third majority-minority state behind Hawaii (which has always been “majority-minority”) and New Mexico (which has been for a while now), and by far the biggest and most politically important of such states. And while the California electorate is set to become majority-minority by a narrow margin, California’s Democratic voting base has most likely been majority-minority for some time now.

Because of California’s quirky nonpartisan blanket primary law, Harris and Sanchez won’t be duking it out for the Democratic nomination. Rather, they’ll run against each other and against candidates of all other parties on the same ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, even if one of them secures a majority of the vote. The result is that in a monolithically Democratic state like California, there is a decent chance that two Democrats with very similar policy platforms will be running against each other in November — one who identifies as black, one who identifies as Latino.

So what might this mean? Christopher Elmendorf, a law professor at the University of California–Davis, has observed that voters rely more heavily on ethnic and gender cues in nonpartisan elections than they do in partisan elections, as party affiliation gives voters useful information as to roughly where a candidate stands. Since party affiliation will be moot in a race pitting Harris against Sanchez, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the outcome of California’s next U.S. Senate race will hinge on whether Californians are more inclined to vote for someone who identifies as black or for someone who identifies as Latina — a rather depressing prospect, and one that proponents of California’s jungle primary don’t seem to have taken into account.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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