Bill Carrick, the veteran political consultant who advises U.S. Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez, was obviously elated last month by a Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Carrick dispatched an email to reporters and potential campaign donors declaring that Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman, “is in a strong position to be one of the top two finalists in the primary and very well positioned to win in November.”
It was not hyperbole but rather a reasonable interpretation of the PPIC poll, which showed Sanchez close to front-runner Kamala Harris both among Democrats and voters of all stripes.
A few days later a USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed the same relative positions.
Given her advantages of name identification, money and endorsements, Harris, the state’s attorney general, should be chagrined that she has not established a commanding lead with the primary just nine weeks away.
That lapse could make her the first victim of California’s relatively new top-two primary system in a high-profile statewide contest.
All candidates appear on the same June primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face each other in November.
If the top two finishers are from the same party, it means that independents and voters from the other party may cast the decisive votes in the runoff, as we’ve already seen in a number of legislative races.
The possibility that Democrats Harris and Sanchez could face each other in November is enhanced by having a flock of Republicans on the primary ballot, none of whom rises above single-digit support.
Were there just one Republican hopeful, he or she probably would make it into the runoff as Harris and Sanchez divide the Democratic vote. But with so many GOP candidates, that becomes unlikely – unless an extraordinarily high Republican voter turnout, driven by a hot presidential duel, pushes one of them ahead of Sanchez.
The PPIC poll has Harris and Sanchez standing at 27 percent and 17 percent of total votes, respectively, and that relative standing is likely to continue unless by some miracle one of the Republicans breaks away.
If it happens, how would a Harris-Sanchez duel play out in the fall?
Harris is clearly the Democratic establishment candidate, and she’d like to continue her take-no-chances approach, saying and doing the politically correct things and shunning anything controversial.
Sanchez has always had a much more colorful and combative approach to politics and, having given up her congressional seat, has nothing to lose by going for broke. She can count on a strong Latino vote and appears to shade Harris among younger voters.
Sanchez’s biggest strength in a two-woman race, however, may be Republican voters, and conservative independents, who would instinctively vote against anyone that leaders of the state’s dominant Democratic Party endorse, and who could be attracted to Sanchez’s tough-on-terrorism posture.
Harris could learn – as former Gov. Gray Davis did 13 years ago – that aversion to risk is the riskiest strategy of all.