Poll: Latino contender could energize U.S. Senate race

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pondering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, has slightly better name recognition than rival Democrat Kamala Harris and could benefit from an energized Latino electorate, according to a survey released by the Legislative Latino Caucus.

The survey also reflected some strength for Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican.

Harris, the state attorney general, declared her intention to run for the Senate seat held for two decades by Barbara Boxer, who is not seeking reelection next year. Harris, 50, whose announcement last month caught many by surprise, quickly picked up a slew of major Democratic endorsements and has dominated the field. She is serving her second term as state attorney general.

Villaraigosa, 50, has indicated an interest in running but has not made a formal announcement.

The survey by Garin Hart Yang Research Group was conducted Jan. 27-29 among 600 people likely to vote in the June 2016 primary election. Latinos comprised some 17 percent of the likely voters surveyed. The report noted that 38 percent of Latinos are of voting age, 27 percent are registered and 22 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.

The Senate race is “very much in  flux, with the field far from settled,” the survey noted, but “our polling data indicates that a Latino candidate could mount a strong challenge (in fact, the best known Latino already starts in a competitive position)…”

In a four-way trial heat, Harris easily led Villaraigosa by 10 percentage points, 28-to-18. Swearengin had 31 percentage points — above Harris but within the margin of error.

When those surveyed were asked who they would vote for if their first choice did not run, Villaraigosa had 26%, Harris 19% and Swearengin 6 percent.

Other Latino candidates mentioned as possible contenders and their name-recognition levels are Rep. Loretta Sanchez (46%), Secretary of State Alex Padilla (41%)  and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (25%).

Some 48 percent surveyed favored a Democratic candidate, while 40 percent favored a Republican, according to the survey. Historically, Latinos have voted Democratic by more than 3-to-1.

“There is some indication from our poll that a viable Latino candidate could generate enthusiasm among this constituency and even expand its turnout,” the survey said.

Villaraigosa’s name recognition was important, Democrats said. Villaraigosa was at 66 percent and Harris at 62 percent, just at the edge of the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus four percentage  points.

“And that’s name recognition from a guy who hasn’t run for office since 2009, and her having run a statewide campaign just last year,” said Latino Caucus spokesman Roger Salazar. “What we’re seeing is that a viable Latino candidate could energize and excite the Latino voters, who are predominantly Democratic and who help Democrats all across the ticket.”

Getting Latinos to vote in greater numbers has proven a challenge. “There population is California is nearly 40 percent, but the turnout is going the other way.”

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