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California Voters Unengaged In Historic Senate Race

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's a rare moment in California politics. There's an open U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1992, and whoever wins this year's race is guaranteed to make history. A debate between the candidates is set for tonight. But as Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports, hardly anyone in California seems to be paying attention.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Some Modesto Community College students are about to show off their school to the frontrunner in California's U.S. Senate race, but they're not exactly sure who she is.

SAMANTHA WHITEMAN: (Laughter) I don't know if I'm going to pronounce it correctly. Kamela (ph) is her first...

ADLER: Close - Kamala.

WHITEMAN: Kamala.

ADLER: When Samantha Whiteman is not studying, she's working two jobs, so she's not paying a lot of attention to the Senate race. Do you know if she's a Democrat or a Republican or...

WHITEMAN: I don't know.

ADLER: But neither are most other Californians. A recent poll asked voters which race they were most enthused about, and just two percent said this one. Perhaps that's because the two candidates have so much in common. Mindy Romero studies voter engagement at UC Davis.

MINDY ROMERO: People use party ID. And then there's gender ID. And then there's race or ethnicity ID. We have two Democrats, two women and two women of color.

ADLER: First there's Kamala Harris, California's attorney general who's backed by the Democratic Party establishment.

KAMALA HARRIS: Hi. Hi, I'm Kamala Harris. Nice to meet you.

ADLER: She's half black, half Indian. She'd be the first Indian-American senator and the second African-American woman. And she's earned a reputation as ambitious yet cautious.

HARRIS: There's a big difference between being a supporter of something and being a champion of it.

ADLER: Her opponent's style couldn't be more different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA SANCHEZ: Well, tonight the California voters have sent the political establishment a message.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

ADLER: You could call Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez part of the establishment. She's in her 20th year on Capitol Hill, and she would be the Senate's first Latina. She's known for being brash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHEZ: You can trust me to stand up to the establishment.

ADLER: Another reason so few voters are engaged could be that an entire major political party is left out. Under California's primary system, the top two finishers regardless of party advance to the November election. And California's first same party statewide runoff begs the question, what's a Republican to do?

TONY ALOSI: Well, in my case, I'm probably going to leave it blank.

ADLER: Polls suggest about a third of GOP voters are like Tony Alosi, who volunteered for Ted Cruz in the California primary.

ALOSI: You can't really forecast what's going to happen just because one Democrat is slightly, you know, less democratic than the other one.

ADLER: Another third of the Republican electorate is splitting its vote between the two Democrats, and the last third is undecided. To have any shot at winning, Republican political consultant Cassandra Pye says Sanchez will need all the Republican support she can get.

CASSANDRA PYE: And when you think about it, I'm sort of the quintessential Sanchez voter in this race, right? I'm not liberal. I am a Republican. I'm a woman, and I'm a perpetual voter. And I've seen nothing. I've seen no evidence of a campaign.

ADLER: That's the great irony of this race. It's unique, historic and utterly boring, which suits Kamala Harris just fine. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.