National Hispanic groups have pushed for a Hispanic candidate to run for Senate in California, where more than 1 in 3 residents is Hispanic, ever since Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in January. Last week, Rep. Loretta Sanchez seemed to answer their wish.
But now that Sanchez is in, some of the groups who advocated loudest for a Latino candidate have to decide just how much they're willing to spend to help her.
At issue, some Latino donors say, is not Sanchez herself. The sometimes-eccentric, ten-term congresswoman invited criticism last week when she made a crude comment about Native Americans, but Sanchez is widely liked in the Hispanic political community and has often received its support for her Orange County House races. Instead, Hispanic leaders say, the conflict is whether to spend big on an expensive, uphill, Democratic primary race—potentially at the cost of valuable pickup opportunities elsewhere.
"There's a finite pool of money out there, and I think it's a calculation that everyone is kind of looking at in this race on the Latino side of the political community," said a source close to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. "There is the potential for anywhere between five to nine credible Latino candidates in swing districts as well as in safe seats that are opening up. So there's a lot of different calculations the caucus is going to have to do to be supportive of their colleague, while at the same time covering those House members they want to bring in or protect."
For Sanchez, who entered the race with just over a half-million dollars in her campaign account, securing financial support from this base will be critical in a race against the well-funded, well-financed early frontrunner, state Attorney General Kamala Harris. She raised more than $2 million from January through March.
Before Sanchez joined the race, the longtime campaign chair Wylie Aitken noted that she'd accumulated tremendous good will from Hispanic community over the years, in part because of her time of the trail campaigning for other candidates. "There are substantial leaders within the Hispanic community who would like to see her run, national locally and statewide," Aitken said.
Sanchez advisor Bill Carrick said the campaign wasn't worried about financial support from the Latino community. "We're certainly going to reach out to the Latino community in California and all across the country, as well as the groups, but we're going to have to work really hard to raise the money, and it will have to come from sources all over the place," Carrick said. "Loretta has been a good fundraiser in he House races and she has a good base, so we anticipate it's gong to be competitive."
Still, Latino leaders' excitement about Sanchez's candidacy may not necessarily translate to big bucks for her campaign.
In neighboring Nevada, for example, Hispanic donors have the opportunity to work alongside the party establishment to elect the first Latina senator. Catherine Cortez Masto, the state's former attorney general, already has been endorsed by Harry Reid and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee there.
Cristobal Alex of the Latino Victory Fund, one of the largest organizations funding Hispanic candidates, said that while California's large Latino population has "historically set the bar for political participation," his group is still "continuing to watch this race carefully."
Though many of the community's leaders, including Democratic megadonor Henry R. Munoz III, have cheered Sanchez's candidacy as a landmark in Latino politics, she still faces a number of challenges courting their money. Chief among those is an opponent with a positive record on Latinos' key issues, observers say.
Three months ago, Latino leaders believed they had a candidate for this race in former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who chaired the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and whose national donor network, they said, could rival Harris's early support. But Villaraigosa found that many of his usual supporters were already lined up behind Harris.
Since then, Harris has touted more prominent Latino backers, including former state Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, former state Assembly Speaker John Perez, and United Farm Workers union cofounder Dolores Huerta.
"The fact that we have a ten-term Latina member in the race certainly is exciting, to have somebody of that profile in the race," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "But as we've seen in California, it's really difficult for a Latino candidate to run statewide "¦ We're making progress, but certainly the U.S. Senate seats have been highly coveted."
Also to Sanchez's disadvantage, many of the groups that fund Hispanic campaigns also are focused on building Democratic majorities via races such as Cortez Masto's, which is in a swing Senate seat.
Still, some Latinos leaders say Sanchez's race is one their fledgling donor community can't afford to ignore. They believe her candidacy in a state like California, regardless of the outcome, is a net win for their community—but only if she has the funds to be competitive.
Rep. Tony Cardenas, the sophomore California Democrat who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus's main fundraising arm, BOLD PAC, said his group hopes to raise more money than ever from Latinos this cycle and will set aside funds for California's Senate race.
"We love that we have a member of Bold PAC running, we have a process, but personally "¦ I think it looks really good for us to support her," Cardenas said. "California's got more Latino voters than any other state in the nation, and I think it's a great opportunity for Latino donors to get behind a good Latina candidate and see history being made."
Mickey Ibarra, a D.C.-based Latino activist and close friend of Villaraigosa, said the desire among Latinos to see Harris face a challenger is still as strong as it was three months ago, and would also be a strong motivating factor for donors.
"Certainly the attorney general has secured significant support, even had many party leaders practically try to anoint her," Ibarra said. "That annoyed a lot of Latino leaders and others. We do have elections for a reason."
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