For many months, California’s ongoing race to replace retiring four-term U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has bored most voters to the point they’ve virtually ignored it.
The casual assumption has been that Democrat Kamala Harris, currently state attorney general and formerly district attorney of San Francisco, would win in a cakewalk, given she’s raised millions of dollars more than her leading rival in the polls, Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Orange County.
The probability has been strong for an all-Democrat November runoff election , as the two Republicans in the race, former state GOP chairmen George (Duf) Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, register well under 10 percent in the latest polls and have had little success raising campaign money.
Enter Ron Unz, 54, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has been out of politics since his 1998 Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual education programs in California public schools. But as an individual candidate in 1994 at age 32, he won 35 percent of the Republican primary vote against then-incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson.
“It’s a very unusual election cycle,” Unz understated in an interview the other day. The other two sort-of significant Republicans in the race have very low poll standings and I think I can shake things up by focusing on controversial issues.”
Anyone watching closely might have gotten a hint that Unz was up to something a week before he officially filed his candidacy papers at the March 16 deadline. “Is the Republican Party just too stupid to survive?” he asked in a blog post that railed against likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and blasted the party for continuing to insist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were good, honest ideas.
But most of all, he says he got in because of his party’s legislative support for a November ballot proposition that would virtually negate Proposition 227 by letting parents of English learner students choose whether or not to put their kids in bilingual education. “227 has been a very good thing,” he said. “Kids have learned English better and faster through immersion. I found it hard to believe most Republicans in the Legislature voted to for this new measure.”
Some might say that Unz’ entry further ensures that Republicans won’t even have a Senate candidate on the November ballot. It’s true that if the three GOP candidates now running all stay in, Republican votes could splinter, assuring a Harris-Sanchez all-Democrat runoff this fall.
But if Unz takes off, the others might not be major factors at all and California could end up with a truly independent U.S. senator.
Unz would need money to do that, but said he’s unable to put more than $100,000 of his own cash into the race. “I’m just not wealthy enough to write multi-million-dollar checks for a campaign that might well lose, like some people,” he said. Meanwhile, he insists he will take no donations over $99.
There is, however, the possibility that if his candidacy somehow catches on, he might reach a little deeper into his pockets, as he did in spending more than $500,000 on 227. At the time, he still had a financial analytics software firm, later sold to the Moody’s investment rating service. “I did OK with that, but not like some,” he said.
“Some people may be attracted to my ideas,” Unz openly hoped, saying he figures to buy very little media advertising. “Maybe a little radio,” he allowed. Even that would be more than Sundheim or Del Beccaro seemingly can afford.
If Unz takes off, it might be because California Republicans want to assure they at least have someone on the fall ballot. It could also happen if the 45 percent of likely voters in the undecided column in the latest polls glom onto him as an anti-establishment hope. One thing for sure: Unz has never been an establishment anything.
If he should beat out the two other Republicans now running, the blame should go to the GOP establishment itself, for not developing candidates with sufficient popular appeal to make a respectable Senate run. And things don’t look much better for Republicanstwo years from now, when both the governor’s office and another Senate seat will be up for grabs.