Just six weeks away from California’s primary election, the state’s top five United States Senate candidates convened for their first and only televised debate on Monday, April 25, at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. The two Democrats, both women, and three all-male Republicans are vying to replace junior Senator Barbara Boxer, a four-term incumbent with plans to retire at the end of this year.
In what some have called a sleeper race, 48 percent of likely primary voters remain undecided — according to The Field Poll — with both Democratic frontrunners maintaining steady leads over 32 filed opponents and only one more radio debate scheduled for May 10. Debate moderators Edie Lambert of Sacramento’s KCRA 3 and John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle questioned all five candidates on topics ranging from the economy and crime to immigration and foreign policy.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris currently leads the race by 13 percent of likely voters, but underwent somewhat less scrutiny than fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, Orange County congresswoman and current second-place Senate contender. More so than distinctions in policy, last week’s debate highlighted differences in tone between the two leading candidates — Harris more measured and Sanchez quicker at the argumentative draw.
In California’s primary system, which ushers the top two vote-getters forward regardless of party affiliation, first and second place essentially carry equivalent weight. In taking greater aim at Sanchez at last week’s first debate, Republicans reached for the lower-hanging fruit to try and edge their way into the general election alongside Harris come June.
Businessman Ron Unz, along with former Republican Party Chairmen Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, shared the stage with the frontrunners, taking hard party-line stances on issues like crime and immigration, but more varied views on economic issues like wealth disparity.
Unz set himself apart from his Republican challengers by highlighting his longtime support for a higher minimum wage, though he suggested California’s may be taking slightly too high a leap in coming years.
“To the extent that workers have more dollars in their pockets, that allows them to spend as consumers, and what we lack right now is sufficient consumer spending,” he said. “So a much higher minimum wage at the federal level is very important for that.”
As a follow-up to statements on broader economic stances, the candidates heard a question from UOP Student Body President Serena Welch on the prospect of tuition-free college and growing burden of nationwide student debt. Both Harris and Sanchez voiced support for cost-free community college, an initiative President Barack Obama has pushed since the start of last year through federal grants awarded to two-year academic and vocational institutions offering pathways to skilled employment.
“We have not done enough to work with our unions, to ensure that there are apprenticeship programs to work with some of those for-profit colleges who are doing a good job to train people up,” Sanchez said.
The Democratic frontrunners also pointed to Pell Grants as a key federal tool, Harris calling for a raise “commensurate with the amount that tuition actually costs these days,” and Sanchez for doubled grant amounts. Republican candidates opposed free tuition but offered cost-cutting measures like student loan privatization and administrative pay cuts.
“Lo and behold, we told everybody to get a college education and costs rise,” Del Beccaro said, “because when you subsidize costs… or give [students] a free pass — free school — then you increase demand, and simple supply and demand tells you that doesn’t work.”
Sundheim argued for increased border surveillance technology with sensors, drones and big data as a principal aspect of his plan for immigration reform and received considerable criticism from Sanchez in response. But after the 20-year representative pointed to her position on the House Homeland Security Committee for credibility, Sundheim fired back with the claim that Sanchez has only in fact been present at five of the last 18 committee hearings.
“I think that it’s great that she’s on the committee, but it would be even better if she went to the actual committee hearing meetings,” he said.
Fact-checkers at the Sacramento Bee have since verified that allegation using C-SPAN archives, where they found Sanchez to be present at just four meetings last year, a record she’s attributed to both overlap with the Armed Services Committee and a duty to care for her ailing father. The same report also validates a claim by Harris that Mexican immigration is currently at net zero, a point she invoked to support reform for the undocumented population already living in the U.S. and which forms the basis of Sanchez’s immigration proposals as well.
“We should not be separating families from each other,” Sanchez said. “So we do, [Sundheim], need to be doing something about helping those people get status [and] be able to be here — those who want to work with us, those who are part of our community.”
Though not a primary target, Harris did not emerge totally unscathed at the end of the night. When the candidates were asked how they planned to tackle crime, the attorney general emphasized a need to keep guns from the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable — an opportunity Sundheim took to remind the audience of a state auditor report that criticized Harris’ department for failing to enforce regulations designed for such purposes.
The Sacramento Bee reported nearly 12,700 uninvestigated cases pertaining to potential subjects of gun ownership restriction as of the end of last year. Harris did not refute Sundheim’s claim, but used her response time to reframe her record more positively.
“Let’s stop with the political attacks, [Sundheim],” Harris said. “We have taken hundreds of guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and I’m proud of that.”