The sharp attacks on Harris underscored the urgency for lagging candidates to shake up a race that has attracted scant public attention in a state dominated by Democrats.
Republican Duf Sundheim, a lawyer and former state Republican chairman, used his opening statement to accuse Harris of failing to keep crime in check. Harris, the state attorney general, later shot back, saying Sundheim was “playing around” with facts while she defended her record on seizing illegal guns and ammunition.
The brisk exchange was one of several during the hour-long match-up in which Republicans, trailing in polls and struggling for public attention, sought to highlight what they saw as flaws with Harris, who repeatedly defended her record in Sacramento. The televised debate in San Diego brought some visibility to the low-key contest to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, which has been overshadowed by the presidential campaign. Polls show many voters remain undecided.
With no major stumbles, and candidates hewing to familiar positions, there was little evidence that the debate would dramatically reorder the contest.
The candidates — Democrats Harris and Loretta Sanchez, and Republicans Tom Del Beccaro, Sundheim and Ron Unz — are each seeking one of two slots on the ballot in November.
Under California’s unusual election rules, only the top two vote-getters advance from the June 7 primary. There is little doubt that one spot will go to front-runner Harris. Sanchez, a congresswoman from Orange County, appears positioned to claim the second slot, although the little-known Republicans are hoping for a come-from-behind surprise.
The five candidates are among 34 who will be on the ballot, and the debate offered an opportunity for them to sharpen their profile with voters.
Democrats are strongly favored to hold the seat in November — the party controls every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature, and holds a 2.7-million edge in voter registration.
In a year when voters have flocked to insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Unz depicted himself as an “independent-minded Republican” outside the establishment. Sanchez, the daughter of immigrant parents who has made a strong push for Hispanic support, reminded viewers she grew up in a bilingual household. Del Beccaro said he learned to work with others growing up one of eight children, and his work as a small business lawyer put him in touch with concerns of everyday Californians.
Questioned about gun violence, Unz, a software developer and theoretical physicist, called the debate over firearms “a distraction” and stressed a failed war on drugs needs to be reassessed. Sundheim said it should be left to states, not the federal government, could consider any new gun laws and accused Harris of failing to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals
Harris responded that the Justice Department “has taken almost 10,000 guns out of the hands of people who are legally prohibited from having them.”
Sanchez, asked about her support for legislation protecting gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits, said it did not give blanket immunity to companies and added, “I have protected Americans from gun violence.”
Questioned about global warming, Unz said he’s not persuaded by the evidence behind climate change. Del Beccaro said unreasonable regulation is pushing jobs overseas, where environmental laws are lax. Harris stressed she had defended state environmental laws, and pointed out she was endorsed by major environmental groups. Sanchez argued that it’s not enough to push strong environmental laws in California — more must be done nationally and globally.
Candidates also clashed over the minimum wage, though not strictly along party lines.
Del Beccaro and Sudheim warned that the state’s $15 level, which will be reached incrementally, would cost jobs in the state’s agricultural heartland. Unz said he would support a $12 federal wage and said California’s rate should account for urban-rural economic differences. He added that immigration levels should be reduced, since a flood of workers creates pressure on wages. Sanchez said she endorsed the higher level.
The candidates had no firm answers for how to dispose of nuclear waste at the defunct San Onofre nuclear power plant.
With no long-term national repository for the highly radioactive material, the nation’s nuclear plants have become storage yards for the waste. Last year, state regulators endorsed a plan to allow operators at the San Onofre plant to move tons of radioactive fuel from storage pools into steel canisters sheathed by concrete.
Headlines in the race have been scarce, and the lagging candidates don’t have enough money for widespread TV advertising, the typical way to reach voters in the vast state.
The debate — the second, and final, scheduled in the primary — takes place with the election technically underway.
Vote-by-mail ballots go out to millions of homes this week.