There's no doubt that the contest to replace outgoing California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer is a sleeper. Far different from the hard-fought, rancorous warfare embraced by candidates in the 1992 primary election that Boxer ultimately won, the 2016 race to succeed her resembles the complete opposite of the intense competition, enthusiasm and fierce exchanges on substance and policy that we're witnessing at the Presidential level.
That's precisely the problem. This is a generationally-important race for a U.S. Senate seat that one of the candidates can potentially hold on to for decades. It's a seat for the highest legislative office in arguably the world, and from the most populous state in the nation. Moreover, it's a platform to create monumental, long-lasting change.
With so much awesome power and possibility on the line for whoever becomes California's next U.S. Senator -- how come there are so few debates?
Sure, there's one coming up next week hosted by the University of the Pacific, and a sprinkling of only a few other debates before the primary on June 7th. But don't voters deserve more?
The two frontrunner candidates and likely November run-off competitors, Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, are both Democrats. Despite their shared Party label, that doesn't mean they're a mirror image of each other when it comes to their agendas or policy objectives for the Senate.
In such a sprawling, diverse state as California, with so many different kinds of people and places, from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley, the Central Valley to San Diego, Orange County to San Francisco and the Central Coast, and more, voters everywhere have different concerns and priorities. Instead of minimizing the candidates' exposure to voters with only a handful of debates and a spectacle of television ads, shouldn't voters have more opportunities to see, hear and learn directly from the candidates in person?
Whether it's a discussion about foreign policy and how the U.S. can tackle ISIS, deal with the Syrian conflict, protect our ally Israel while moving the ball forward on peace in the Middle East, dive into how we defend our nation from cyber terrorism, embrace free trade or fair trade, grapple with China, or combat North Korea's aggressiveness--there are myriad issues confronting the U.S. and a limited number of debates will significantly limit the discourse on them.
And how about domestic policy? Do Harris and Sanchez support Senator Bernie Sanders' bold ideas to expand Medicare and Social Security or do they prefer more of an incremental approach like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prefers? When it comes to climate change, will they work to adapt California's innovative and tough environmental laws nationally, and if so, how? What about how they would build a realistic coalition in the Senate to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship? When it comes to women's rights, how will they advance equality issues like pay equity and protecting choice?
On the drought, do Harris and Sanchez support Senator Dianne Feinstein's compromise legislation or do they have plans of their own? What about their visions for how to address income inequality? And on taxes, do Harris and Sanchez stand with Clinton's promise not to raise any taxes on those making $250,000 or less, or do they side with Sanders' idea that in order to pay for big government programs like single-payer healthcare and free college tuition, all Americans will need to pony up a bit more.
California is a big state with over 38 million people and nearly 18 million voters. It's hard to have debates in the first place, let alone present them in a way that everyone in the state can watch and see. Still, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try for more.
Given the intensity and competitiveness of the 2016 Presidential race, it's highly likely that voter turnout in the state will tick up beyond the usual June primary turnout. With more voters participating in the process, this also adds more justification for the need of increasing the number of debates so that an expanded electorate can have an opportunity to become more informed about the Senate candidates.
Understandably, some of the candidates might view debates as a gamble because it makes them vulnerable to attacks or missteps when in the spotlight.
Take Harris for example. While conventional political wisdom dictates that if you're ahead, then a candidate like Harris probably shouldn't make herself susceptible to such scrutiny by engaging in debates. Contrary to that philosophy, I think in the case of Harris, more debates can actually help her. Why? Because she's hit a real ceiling in this race, hovering around just 30 percent in recent polling. Part of this is due to the fact that she hasn't started her paid media campaign which will communicate her message statewide to voters.
The other side of this is that voters and the press find Harris to come off as cautious, calculating and polished. That's then reflected in the news coverage of her campaign. An example of this was the fact that for the first few months after Harris entered the Senate race, she severely restricted her narrative to only endorsements and talking points surrounding her official duties as Attorney General, without weighing in on major national issues of the day. Since then, she's definitely made some progress in talking about broader issues, but it's still nonetheless a challenge to get Harris out of her comfort zone when it comes to talking about a wide range of policy topics. Debates will help with this and show that she's a candidate of real depth and substance and is not solely confined to policies impacting only the criminal justice system.
Sanchez, on the other hand, is definitely well-positioned for second place in the race, but she hasn't done enough to catch up to Harris' consistent lead in polling. Much of this is because she's lagged in fundraising and institutional support while Harris has nabbed the vast majority of organizational endorsements, chiefly the California Democratic Party. Still, Sanchez can be exceedingly formidable in this race given the historic nature of her candidacy, like Harris, but also her deeply extensive resume in Congress. She, even more than Harris, needs additional debates. At a time when her campaign is desperate for oxygen and media coverage to help boost her name identification and get her message out, the exposure alone from debates will help her exponentially. She could also use it to draw a deep line in the sand to contrast herself with Harris on key issues.
Maybe it's just me, but the overshadowing of a looming Presidential contest in California doesn't seem like a good enough excuse not to have a series of debates for such an important seat as U.S. Senator for the Golden state. Both frontrunner candidates have an incentive to do so and each can capitalize on such discussions in a way that helps to strengthen their respective campaigns. Who knows, perhaps at next Monday's debate, one of the candidates will do justice for California's voters and use the opportunity to publicly challenge their competitors to expand the series of upcoming debates. Maybe it's wishful thinking or maybe one of the candidates will agree? We'll have to watch and see.