Loretta Sanchez

Rep. Loretta Sanchez gestures on the steps of a congressional office building in Washington during orientation week for new members of Congress. (Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)

Phil Willon and Noah Bierman
April 22, 2016

Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s easygoing, neighborly style has won over Orange County voters for two decades, but that blessing has come with a nettlesome curse: the occasional, stinging political gaffe.

Since jumping into the U.S. Senate race last spring, Sanchez has found herself receiving negative attention for imitating a Native American “war cry” — which was caught on video — and for suggesting that 5% to 20% of Muslims support a caliphate.

Even the launch of her campaign was flubbed when a “draft” announcement was leaked to reporters days before she was ready.

Sanchez’s missteps have drawn snickers from her opponents in the race to replace four-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring at 75. But past rivals warn against discounting her. They say the Democrat has a history of defying low expectations, and Sanchez’s 10 straight congressional victories in a county known as a bulwark of rock-ribbed conservatism is evidence of her tenacity and deft political skills.

“It’s easy, based on Loretta’s colorful actions and gaffes, to dismiss her right off the bat. But she is actually an aggressive and smart campaigner,” said George Andrews, who managed Republican Van Tran’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign to unseat Sanchez in one of her toughest reelection challenges.
Kamala Harris is much more careful and controlled. Loretta is kind of out there. — Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles

For Sanchez, 56, facing long odds is nothing new.

In 1996, the little-known financial analyst from Anaheim earned the nickname “Dragon Slayer” after ousting archconservative Rep. Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan, beating him by just 984 votes. She survived a bitter fight with Dornan as he attempted to overturn the results by claiming the election was tainted by illegal ballots cast by noncitizens.

Before that, her political resume consisted solely of a failed bid for the Anaheim City Council.

“When she first ran, she was not expected to be the nominee, not even by the Democratic Party,” said Los Angeles-based political consultant John Shallman, who managed Sanchez’s 1996 campaign. “And when she was the nominee, they didn’t believe she had a chance. Why? Because she was Latino and a woman.”

Born to parents who immigrated to Los Angeles from Sonora, Mexico, Sanchez remembers being one of the first enrollees in Operation Head Start, a federal program for low-income children, at her El Monte elementary school.

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