Donna Edwards may have lost her Maryland Senate bid, but the quest continues to elect another black woman to the Senate after nearly two decades.
The focus is now shifting to another mega-Senate race in California, where Kamala Harris is the front-runner to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in a contest that could pit two Democratic women of color against each other.
Hours after Edwards conceded to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Tuesday night, some groups working to get more African American women elected began sending out the call to rally behind Harris, who is California’s attorney general. She leads 34 candidates who will face off in a free-for-all primary on June 7.
“We have just 42 days before California voters go to the polls to vote for Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate,” read an email sent to supporters of Higher Heights, a group dedicated to harnessing the electoral power of black women and that worked on Edwards’s behalf.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a co-founder of Higher Heights, said that even though Harris has far more institutional backing than Edwards did in the Maryland race, “you can’t take anything for granted.”
Peeler-Allen said her group will work just as hard to mobilize black women voters for Harris as it did for Edwards. That includes organizing online and on the ground, encouraging women to give money, to donate their time for canvassing and phone banks, and urging friends and relatives to support Harris’s campaign.
Emily’s List, which spent more than $2 million to help Edwards compete against a better-financed Van Hollen, also is backing Harris.
In a statement Tuesday after the Maryland race was called, the group’s president, Stephanie Schriock, said: “It’s unconscionable that there are zero black women in the Senate – it hurts our national dialogue and our policies. There are more opportunities to change this in 2016, and Donna’s campaign has helped to make the case that this goal is a critical part of the progressive movement.”
But Harris’s strongest challenge is from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who could be the first Latina senator if she advances in the primary and wins the November election.
Two national groups dedicated to increasing the number of Hispanics in office are backing Sanchez’s bid: CHC BOLD-PAC, the political branch of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Latino Victory Project, co-founded two years ago by actress Eva Longoria and Henry R. Muñoz III, a businessman and national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Cristobal J. Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, noted that Harris’s sister, Maya Harris, is a founding board member of the organization. He said he has “deep admiration and respect for Kamala Harris.”
But his organization also is excited “that this is the right time for us to break that glass ceiling and have a Latino serve in the Senate.” The group also is supporting Catherine Cortez Masto (D), the former Nevada attorney general, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Under California’s open primary system, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. Harris, 50, the daughter of immigrants – her mother is from India, her father grew up in Jamaica – has led the pack in polls since announcing her candidacy more than a year ago and is almost certain to get one of those spots.
The other spot is likely to go to to Sanchez, who is polling a solid second among the sprawling field of candidates, which features 12 Republicans, 11 independents, seven Democrats and four minor party candidates.
Polls in recent weeks put Harris’s support at between 27 and 28 percent, with Sanchez running at 14 to 16 percent. All of the Republican candidates were polling in single digits. About half the voters were still undecided, but absent a dramatic event to change the dynamics of the race, it looks like two Democrats will emerge from the primary and go head-to-head in the fall in a race that will draw national attention and money.
If that is the case, given the Democratic nature of the Golden State, California’s new senator is likely to be a woman of color.
If so, the election could test alliances among groups that have often fought alongside each other to challenge institutions from which women and people of color have historically been shut out.
As of January, California had 17.2 million registered voters, 43.1 percent of whom are Democrats, 27.6 percent Republicans and 24 percent declaring no party preference, according to the secretary state.
The state does not keep records on race and ethnicity, but the Field Poll, an independent, nonpartisan polling service, estimates that white voters make up the largest share of the electorate at 59 percent, followed by Latinos at 24 percent, Asian Americans 11 percent and African Americans 6 percent. Among Democrats, the Field Poll estimates that white voters account for 49 percent of the registrants, followed by Latinos at 30 percent, Asians Americans 11 percent and African Americans 10 percent.
Harris’s spokesman emphasized her experience as a two-term attorney general of the most populous state in the country.
Sanchez, 56, in an interview last week, touted her 20 years of experience in the House, which she says makes her more prepared to be a player in the Senate. She points out that she serves on the Homeland Security and Armed Services committees and still gets accolades for her 1996 upset victory over longtime Republican Rep. Bob Dornan.
When pressed about a chance to make history as the first Latina senator, she says that she thinks her candidacy “will have a positive effect on young Latinos,” to give them the confidence to take on a big challenge, like running for the U.S. Senate.
There are currently two African American men in the Senate – Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — but the one and only black woman ever elected to the body, Carol Moseley Braun (D) of Illinois, left office in 1999.
Three Hispanic men currently serve in the Senate, including two who ran for the Republican presidential nomination this year – Marco Rubio of Florida, who dropped out of the primary last month, and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is still in the race.
Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, elected in 2012, is the only Asian American woman ever to serve in the Senate.
Harris was the first woman, the first African American and the South Asian to be elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003. She made history in those three categories again when she was elected California attorney general in 2010.
She immediately made headlines by balking at a multi-state deal with several big banks for improperly foreclosing on homeowners during the mortgage crisis. Harris walked away from the negotiations and held out until she’d won a number of concessions, including a larger financial settlement for California homeowners.
Harris, whose roots are in the Bay area, has been tagged as the “establishment candidate,” a label that could turn off some voters in this season of political discontent.
She overwhelmingly won the backing of the California Democratic Party and has been endorsed by eight members of the California congressional delegation, along with dozens of state lawmakers. Harris also got the blessing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which declined to endorse Edwards.
She leads the field in fundraising, having collected more than $9 million since announcing in January 2015, with $4.9 million cash on hand as of the end of March. Sanchez reported $2.3 million in cash at the end of last month.
Sanchez, whose base is in Orange County, lists the support of 17 California House members on her campaign website, more than twice as many as Harris. She said it was at her colleagues’ urging that she decided to get into the race last May.
The Latino Victory Project’s Alex said the group is not approaching the California race as a competition between Latinos and African Americans.
“Our focus is building Latino political power by electing more Hispanics to office so that our values and our voices are reflected in government and the policies that drive our country forward,” he said.
“We are 17 percent of population but only 1 percent of all elected officials. We are extremely excited to have two incredibly qualified, dynamic leaders running for the U.S. Senate, one in Nevada and one in California.”