SANTA ANA (AP) — California Rep. Loretta Sanchez announced Thursday she is running for U.S. Senate, setting up a multimillion-dollar clash of two prominent Democrats that will highlight the state’s diversity and divisions.
The announcement in her home district in Orange County dramatically reshapes a 2016 race that was developing into a runaway for state Attorney General Kamala Harris, another Democrat who has had the Senate field virtually to herself for months.
The contest will have geographic, racial and political dimensions that could highlight rifts within the Democratic Party, which dominates California politics.
Sanchez, 55, is Hispanic with a background in national defense issues and roots in Southern California. Over the years, she belonged to a faction of moderate Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition.
Harris, 50, is a favorite of the party’s left wing. She is a career prosecutor from the San Francisco Bay Area whose father is black and mother is Indian.
Sanchez seized on the contrasts, repeatedly referring to her experience in foreign and military affairs on Capitol Hill. That resume includes trips to Iraq and other world conflict zones, meetings with senior military leaders and soldiers, and her service on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
“I know what needs to be done to ensure our nation is secure and our troops are equipped and ready,” Sanchez said.
That experience, she added, is essential “in these perilous times,” implying the state had no time for a senator who needed on-the-job training.
A statement issued by Harris’ campaign suggested Sanchez’s tenure on Capitol Hill could be a liability in the race. Harris “looks forward to a lively discussion about who is best equipped to help change the culture of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and make a difference in the lives of Californians,” it said.
Democrats are strongly favored to hold the seat, which is being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. The party controls every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature.
Sanchez enters the race an underdog — unlike Harris, she has never been tested by a statewide campaign.
She also starts out well behind the attorney general in financial firepower. Sanchez had about $540,000 in the bank at the end of March for her House race; Harris, who announced in mid-January, already had $2.2 million on hand.
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, an almanac of state elections, described Sanchez as a “scrapper and a proven candidate” who would pose a challenge for Harris. Sanchez will get extensive coverage on Spanish-language media and could attract moderates and independents by running to Harris’ political right, he said.
Under California’s unusual election rules, voters can choose candidates from any political party in a primary election.
“You go to Southern California and they don’t know who Kamala Harris is. Why would they?” Hoffenblum asked.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who this week declined to enter the Senate race, said there is a “big opportunity for a candidate from Southern California, and I think there’s a great hunger in the Latino community for a candidate as well.”
Hispanics now account for about two of every 10 voters in the state, a mark that has risen gradually for years.
Sanchez made the announcement surrounded by her mother, husband and other supporters, after two days of mixed signals about her intentions. On Tuesday, she and a top adviser said she remained undecided about the contest after a mistakenly distributed email from her said she would enter the race. Asked about the mix-up, she said she needed more time to reach a decision.
Sanchez is serving her 10th term in the House. She came to Congress in 1996 by upsetting Republican incumbent Bob Dornan, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gun control.
Two little-known Republicans have entered the contest: state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and former state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro.
Sanchez is known for a lively, some might say quirky, personality. Her annual and sometimes racy Christmas cards have a dedicated following. She scheduled a fundraiser during the 2000 Democratic National Convention at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion and changed the location only after fellow Democrats protested.
She voted against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002 and has pushed the Pentagon to allow women to participate in direct combat operations.