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Latinos May Hold the Key in California Senate Race

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In this Tuesday, April 19, 2016, "I've Voted" stickers that will be given to voters on election day are seen at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Hillary Clinton made history when she clinched the presidential nomination of a major party for the first time in U.S. history. But California voters also ensured that it will be one of two minority women — one of them Latina —who will occupy a seat in the U.S. Senate after November. Latino voters could play a key role, but they may find themselves undervalued in this race.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is African American, and Latina Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez received the most votes and will be vying for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer. Both Harris and Sanchez will compete against each other as Democrats as a result of a new law passed in 2010 that allows voters to choose from a single list of candidates no matter the party.

Image: California Attorney General Kamala Harris
File photo of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, currently running for a U.S. Senate seat. GARY CAMERON / Reuters

This law opened the door for two members of the same party to compete against each other in November, which may be good for Democrats in a state where the Republican party continues to shoot itself in the foot with candidates like Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.

But it may also have mixed results for Latinos.

Within a confined competition between two Democrats, with Harris being the clear favorite -she received the most votes - the question is whether Latinos will be looked over.

Louis DeSipio, Professor of Political Science and Chicano Studies, and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine said, "Harris could improve on her primary share of the Latino vote with some targeted campaigning and outreach, but can probably win even if she doesn't do any particularly focused Latino outreach."

RELATED: Why Polls On Latinos Get It Wrong: Here's What to Look For

This can be viewed in one of two ways. If Harris thinks she can win without a concerted effort to reach out to Latinos, then Hispanics may find themselves with minimal influence over Harris should she win in November.

On the other hand, ignoring Latinos can present an opportunity for Sanchez, already a favorite among Hispanics on name-recognition alone. Sanchez could use her influence with Hispanic voters to squeeze out a victory. This week's election illustrates the tension between these two scenarios.

In an analysis provided exclusively to NBC News by Latino Decisions, a research firm specializing in Latino voting patterns, the results of the California primary suggest that Latinos could hold the key to victory in the contest between Harris and Sanchez.

Image: Luis Gutierrez, Loretta Sanchez
File photo of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., currently running for a U.S. Senate seat. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

"We find that Sanchez had very large margins over Harris in the most heavily Latino voting communities in Los Angeles. In some cases Sanchez was more than 40 points ahead of Harris in areas that are 95 percent Latino," said Adrian Pantoja, senior analyst at Latino Decisions and a professor of political science at Pitzer College.

Among the themes throughout the presidential primary has been a persistent miscalculation of the impact Latino voters would have in the elections, and the Senate primaries in California may prove no different.

Prior to California's primary, much was written about Bernie Sanders and the influence he had with Latinos. Many speculated that California would be a closer election than it really was, but Sanders ended up underperforming in California, and analyses such as FiveThirtyEight's point to the fact that he underperformed with Latino voters as well.

This could be attributed, once again, to poor polling techniques with Latinos. And if Latinos continue to be researched poorly, uncertainty in November could spell doom for the candidates who ignore Latino voters.

RELATED: As Dems' Primary Saga Plays Out, California Latino Voter Registration Surges

"While Kamala Harris appeared to enjoy a healthy victory in the Senate race, there might be an opening for Loretta Sanchez in November with the Latino vote," said Pantoja.

It was a horrible night for the Republican party, on Tuesday. For the first time in over a hundred years, no Republican will compete for a U.S. Senate seat in California. This leaves open the question of how Republicans will behave in an election with no Republican on the ticket.

"Republicans won't vote for Harris in large numbers, but they might just skip voting in the Senate race entirely or simply stay away from the polls in November in response to a non-competitive Presidential race in the state," says DeSipio.

Sanchez, says DeSipio, "needs to build an unusual coalition if she expects to win." She will need to not only hold on to Latino voters, but find a way to thread the needle by adding moderate Democrats and Republicans to her ledger. "In other words, Sanchez faces a big challenge to win in November."

Latino voter registration is up significantly in the Golden State. In this contested Senate race between two minority Democratic women, the Hispanic vote will be one to watch.

Stephen Nuño is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.

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