The abrupt withdrawal of one of the Republican candidates in California's U.S. Senate race could help a party that's been battered in recent statewide elections, but Democrats remain favorites to hold the seat



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LOS ANGELES — The sudden withdrawal of one of the Republican candidates in California's U.S. Senate race could help a party that's been battered in recent statewide elections, although Democrats remain favorites to hold the seat now occupied by Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In this case, subtraction could be a plus for the GOP.

The exit Monday of Assemblyman Rocky Chavez came at a time when Republicans had shown little evidence that they could be competitive in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the Legislature.

The former Marine Corps colonel had been in close competition with two former state GOP chairmen, Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, all three trailing in polls behind the leading Democrats, state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County.

Republican voter registration has shriveled to 28 percent in California, so the prospect of multiple candidates grappling for votes would further dilute the GOP's chances of getting someone through the tricky June primary, when the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

"With three Republicans in the race, there was a very strong chance they would split the Republican vote" and allow two Democrats to advance to the November ballot, said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.

With Chavez out "those chances have diminished," he said.

Chavez's announcement represented a bit of encouraging news for Republicans in a race that, so far, has appeared lopsided.

Harris has about $4 million in the bank for the contest, about a 2-1 edge over Sanchez. By comparison, Sundheim closed the year with $70,000 in the bank and $14,000 in debts. Chavez closed his books for 2015 with $369 on hand and nearly $43,000 in debts. Del Beccaro had about $40,000.

Although Democrats have a wide edge in voter registration, Republicans tend to be more reliable primary voters, boosting their influence. And primary voters typically hew to their party preferences — Democrats stick with Democrats, Republicans with Republicans.

An independent Field Poll last month suggested Sanchez has work to do to secure a spot in November. She tallied 15 percent support among likely voters, with Harris at 27 percent. Republicans trailed in single digits.

But nearly half of voters said they were undecided.

Along with wavering voters, there are other unknowns. A lingering presidential primary contest for either major party, stretching into California in June, could drive up turnout and create surprises in the Senate race. Additional candidates can enter the race until next month.

In a state with a growing Hispanic vote, Donald Trump's presence on the presidential ballot could lead to a record Latino turnout, Democratic strategist Roger Salazar predicted. Trump has been harshly critical of Mexican immigrants, calling some "rapists" and "criminals."

"It would change the calculus of the U.S. Senate race," Salazar said.

Chavez faced problems that have become familiar for Republicans in statewide contests. It's difficult to become known in the large state without millions of dollars for advertising, but donors are reluctant to write checks because of the long odds for GOP candidates.

There is no better place to witness how demographic shifts have shaped elections than in California, the home turf of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that just a generation ago was a reliably Republican state in presidential contests.

A surge in immigrants transformed the state and its voting patterns. The number of Hispanics, blacks and Asians combined has outnumbered whites since 1998. With Latinos, voter surveys show they've overwhelmingly favored Democratic presidential candidates for decades.

Sanchez strategist Bill Carrick thinks it's likely the two leading Democrats will be on the ballot in November. The withdrawal of Chavez, he said, "is probably a footnote."

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