Senate Candidates Muted in Lackluster Debate for Boxer’s Open Seat

SAN DIEGO, CALIF. – U.S. Senate candidates tried to go after each other in a televised debate held at KPBS studios in San Diego, but the moderator kept a strict debate format and refused to allow the important back-and-forth exchanges that can reveal a candidate’s true demeanor and position on the issues.

Two Democrats and three Republicans debated the issues of public safety, illegal immigration, and the environment, but were often cut off by the moderator and not allowed to finish their thoughts or challenge one another.

With the primary just weeks away, and voter confusion at an all-time high, nearly a third of voters are still undecided about who to support in the U.S. Senate race. And when voters do view their ballots, they’ll see a double-sided monster with thirty-four candidates from which to choose.

The top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the November election. And it is very likely that for the first time in California’s political history, the choice will come down to two Democrats.

The front-runner is Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is comfortably ahead of Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County. A poll conducted last month has Harris leading with 27 percent of the vote. The poll also showed 48 percent of voters remain undecided.

As for the issues, the candidates debated the controversial minimum wage increase for the state. Harris and Sanchez both support the plan to raise it to $15 an hour over the next six years. Republicans Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim oppose it. The attorneys are former heads of the California Republican Party.

Republican Ron Unz believes California’s $15 number is too high, but would support a hike to $12 an hour. Unz ran for governor in 1994 against Pete Wilson.

The other big discussion point focused on comprehensive immigration reform, and what the best course of action should be for California.

Sanchez said, “the country needs massive reforms including an overhaul of the Visa program and increasing the numbers of Border Patrol agents.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform is the front-and-center civil rights issue of our time,” Harris noted.

She continued, “reform is critical now and it would benefit the state of California by $5 billion and 600,000 jobs.”

Republican Tom Del Beccaro took a notably different approach, saying “anything proposed that’s comprehensive will never pass.” Beccaro said he would like to see some kind of Visa reform and an immediate 90-day path to deporting illegal immigrants.

Duf Sundheim said, “there needs to be a clear path for legal status and sanctuary cities are a big mistake.” Republican Unz also supports comprehensive immigration reform.

Mail-in ballots are going out this week. Again, the top two vote-getters in the June 7 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the November election.

Photo Credit: Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune