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Feinstein, Boxer back Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate seat

Democratic Senate candidate Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, speaks during a debate in Los Angeles. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
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Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, announced Thursday that they are endorsing Kamala Harris in the increasingly contentious Democrat vs. Democrat contest for the Senate seat being vacated by Boxer.

The decision by the two Democratic senators to choose sides is likely to be met with protests from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) and her supporters, who have argued that party leaders should stay on the sidelines. Boxer and Feinstein join Gov. Jerry Brown, Vice President Biden and President Obama in announcing their support for Harris, who from the start of the campaign has been favored to win the seat.

The contest for the first open Senate seat in California in 24 years has come down to two Democrats because the state’s primary system advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, to the general election. Sanchez, who has represented Orange County in the House since 1996, easily beat several Republicans to win the second place spot in the June primary but came in 20 points behind Harris.

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Boxer, who announced her retirement last year, had said she considered both women friends and would stay out of the race. In a statement, she said, “I also said that if differences developed that indicate that one candidate emerges as the progressive choice that I would endorse the individual. That day has come.

“California deserves a continuation of clear progressive leadership in the U.S. Senate. For almost 50 years, the seat that I hold has been a leadership seat on human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, fair trade, a clean environment and a voice for all families — no matter their circumstances. Kamala Harris shares those values with me. Her broad array of endorsements underscores this,” Boxer said.

Feinstein also had waved off questions about making an endorsement in the race. In her statement, she praised Harris’s work in criminal justice reform, pushing for more money ad reforms from mortgage companies after the foreclosure crisis and going after polluters. “In this U.S. Senate campaign, Kamala has been a consistent voice of unity and optimism at a time when too many political leaders have tried to divide our communities along racial and religious lines,” Feinstein’s statement read. “I wholeheartedly endorse Kamala’s campaign and look forward to having a strong partner in Kamala Harris serving alongside me in the U.S. Senate.”

Neither senator was immediately available for further comment.

Early on the race was thought to be one to watch because the election of either woman would make history: Harris, 51, would be only the second African American woman to serve in the Senate; Sanchez, 56, would be one of the first Latinas. Catherine Cortez Masto is the Democratic nominee for the open Senate seat in Nevada.

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Harris won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party at its convention earlier this year and has since then rolled up support among national political figures, statewide labor organizations and progressive organizations. Last week she was endorsed by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who gave up her House seat after being wounded during a mass shooting as she met with constituents at a shopping center and now runs a foundation to prevent gun violence. This week Harris was endorsed by the United Farm Workers; the union’s co-founder and civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta, had endorsed Harris back in the summer.

Sanchez has won the backing of 17 California House members and is supported by several national Latino political organizations, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD-PAC. But she has struggled to raise money needed to introduce herself and spread her message to voters across the sprawling state.

The congresswoman also has eagerly accepted the endorsements of some California Republican and conservative political figures, including Rep. Darrell Issa, former congressman Buck McKeon and talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Some Democrats have privately expressed distaste with Sanchez’s touting the support of such hard-line conservatives.

Democrats also gasped after Sanchez, responding to a question on a Spanish-language television program about why she thought Obama endorsed Harris, noted that both were African American.

Harris, who was first elected attorney general in 2010 and reelected two years ago, has consistently led in the polls, including several surveys earlier this month that showed her with double-digit leads over Sanchez. Another by the Public Policy Institute of California showed a closer race, with Sanchez trailing by seven percentage points. But in all of the surveys, at least a third of the voters said they were undecided or do not plan to vote in the Senate race.

The endorsements of Boxer and Feinstein came the morning after the only debate scheduled between Sanchez and Harris before the Nov. 8 election. The two clashed several times during Wednesday night’s debate in Los Angeles, with Sanchez accusing Harris of failing to deliver on reducing crime and protecting consumers and the attorney general repeatedly criticizing the congresswoman for reports that she has one of the worst attendance records in Congress.

For much of the past year, the two largely ignored each other, instead touting their own biographies and political records. But in recent weeks, Sanchez has stepped up her criticism of Harris, who has mostly deflected the barbs.

But at the debate, Harris pushed back harder after Sanchez said Harris misled the public on a state ballot initiative on criminal justice reform that would make some nonviolent criminals eligible for parole and give judges, not prosecutors, the power to decide which juveniles are charged as adults. Sanchez said the law would release people convicted of gun crimes and sexual assaults.

Harris said Sanchez was resorting to “Willie Horton-style fearmongering” and while in Congress had “voted for policies that led to mass incarceration,” including trying juveniles as adults.

Asked why she was running for the Senate seat, Sanchez said she was encouraged by her House colleagues. “They came to me and said, ‘You have experience. You have been to Afghanistan. You know where the Horn of Africa is.’ ”

Harris said Californians “want and deserve bold leadership, with a track record of getting things done. And you’ve gotta show up. My opponent does not show up. You can have a lot of stamps on your passport, but you gotta show up.”

Sanchez later protested: “My opponent is insinuating that I have not been to work. The reality is I work hard every single day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the people of my district know that.”

Harris retorted: “My opponent has passed one bill in 20 years in Congress and that was to rename a post office.”

Sanchez ended the debate in dramatic fashion, doing what looked like the hip-hop dance “the dabb” after the moderator cut her off for going over the allotted time for her closing statement: