The headlines paint a picture of a sleepy, quiet, even quaint race for the vacant U.S. Senate seat in California. It seems that few Californians and even fewer people outside of the Golden State are paying attention to the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. In many ways, it makes sense. The two candidates for the seat are both Democrats, and isn’t everyone following Trump versus Clinton? Who has time to think about another race? But we all should be making some time for this important senate race.
First of all, this is the second Senate race in California under their newish open primary system. Enacted in 2011, the open primary allows for people running for any elected office—except president—to run regardless of party. Every voter gets the same ballot, instead of just Democrats voting in a Democratic primary and just Republicans voting in a Republican primary. The top two candidates, regardless of party, move on to the general election. California saw over two dozen candidates throw their hats into the ring during the primary, and this system hopefully will encourage more people to run for office. Though it might not help with the political gerrymandering that ensures safe GOP and Democratic districts, it may help challenge long-time office holders who rarely have strong opposition within their party or in the general because of their incumbency. This tool could be a great way to open up elections and move past the stronghold political parties have on who ends up on our ballots.
The two top candidates who emerged in the Senate race were California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The fact that both of these politicians are women of color makes this a historic runoff. If she wins, Harris would be the first Indian-American woman and second African-American woman to serve in the Senate (she is of both Indian and Jamaican descent), while Sanchez would be the first Latina to ever serve in the Senate.
While Harris and Sanchez are both Democrats, they are from different wings of the party. Sanchez began her political career as a Republican and has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1997 as part of the Blue Dog Democrat invasion. Harris hasn’t worked in the legislature; she’s served in judicial roles, first as a district attorney in San Francisco who won attention for opposing the death penalty, and then as the state’s attorney general. Harris is clearly the party’s favorite, having landed many endorsements—including nods from both current California senators and President Obama. Harris was also mentioned as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton (which, ugh, would have been AWESOME. Can you imagine her debating Mike Pence?).
No matter who wins, this race will have a big impact on the future of not just California, but of our country. It will place one more woman in the Senate, add a woman of color to the very white branch of government (the House and Senate are 83 percent white), and perhaps will incentivize other states to adopt open primary processes. Sadly, I fear that if Sanchez wins with the backing of Republicans, whom she is publicly courting, Democrats will shy away from adopting open primaries. On the other hand, if Harris wins, Republicans may cry foul. Which goes to prove my conclusion that an open primary is a threat to the parties’ stronghold on the electoral process.