Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez get ready to debate

Two Democrats are running for Senate to replace Barbara Boxers, when she leaves. Can they differentiate themselves?

The presidential campaign has been dominating the headlines. But another important political race is playing out, here in California. With the retirement of Barbara Boxer, one of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate is opening up for the first time in more than 20 years. State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange county Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez are campaigning for the job. Both are Democrats.

This week, they’ll face off in their one and only debate before the general election.

KCRW spoke to LA Times political reporter Phil Willon, who says the two candidates will be looking to differentiate themselves—and to try to win over Republican and independent voters, many of whom are still undecided.

PHIL WILLON: The two aren’t that different on a lot of the major issues like immigration and even gun control, even when they go back and forth on that, and foreign policy. They’re not that far apart. So they’re going to be really kind of battling at the corners just to try to differentiate themselves. I suspect that Sanchez will be a little more aggressive during the debate as she has been during the campaign, and go after Harris on some of her… But even that is going to be on things she did as Attorney General as opposed to some of her position on the issues.

KCRW: Do you think one of the places where we could see them painting contrast between each other would be in their experience? I mean you’ve got Harris with very high profile jobs, but they’ve been local, state-level. She was the district attorney in San Francisco, now the State Attorney General, as opposed to Sanchez who’s been talking about the fact that she has national experience in Congress.

PW: Yeah, I mean Kamala Harris has been saying that she has experience on the issues that affect Californians to a great deal on crime, on things like the mortgage crisis, and vast experience on that. Loretta Sanchez has been saying that she’s the only one in the race with legislative experience working across the aisle in Washington, which is difficult. And she’s been emphasizing the fact that she is an expertise because of her 20 years in Washington and her expertise in national defense and homeland security issues. Whereas Harris has really no experience on those issues at all. One of the main and touchy issues between the two is on water, which is pretty significant in California. Harris has been more equivocal of some of the big water projects, some of the dam proposals and more kind of in line with the environmental groups in the state. Sanchez hasn’t really come out in favor of dams or anything, but said she’s more willing to listen to all sides, the ranchers, the farmers on the water needs in the central valley. And that’s one of the bright lines between the two campaigns and a lot of people, especially in the central valley are really tuned into that.

KCRW: Sanchez is a congresswoman from Orange County, and she would seem to have a lot of pluses from the get-go. She’s a Democrat, a woman, Latina, and at the same time she represents one of the more conservative areas of coastal Southern California. So you would think she would draw support from a wide-range of voters, but she struggled to gain traction, why is that?

PW: Well, I mean, it’s a natural disadvantage cause she represents one slice of the state and she has not run statewide. Whereas, Harris has been at two statewide general elections as Attorney General, two statewide primary elections as Attorney General, and this current one as US Senate. So she’s known a lot more statewide and has more experience running statewide. And it’s difficult for a member of Congress to basically kind of expand their territory statewide from just a little slice. She’s been in Orange County, for 20 years and been elected there, beating Bob Dornan back from the 90s, but that has not translated to places, even to LA, or to the Bay Area, Central Valley, she’s not that well-known. Harris is not that well-known either, but she is more well-known than Sanchez.

KCRW: A couple polls came out recently about this race, and they’re kind of contradictory. The field polls show Harris widening her lead over Sanchez, another survey from the Public Policy Institute of California showed Sanchez narrowing the gap. One place they do agree though is that sizable percentage of voters are still undecided, why is that?

PW: Well I mean when you think about, more than half of the voters in California are either Republicans or Independents or belonging to another party. And so Republicans especially don’t have a candidate, so they’re all just trying to figure out who to bat. The registered Democrats, by far, back Kamala Harris in this race according to most of the polls I’ve seen. But the volatility is there, I mean it’s a low exposure campaign. A lot of voters don’t know what the candidates stand for or really who they are, so I think that will close as Election Day nears, hopefully, but who knows. With the Trump/Clinton race, that’s kind of swallowing up all the airtime and all the political bandwidth most voters have.