Sen. Barbara Boxer’s announcement Thursday that she will not seek a fifth term in 2016 opened a national path for a long list of possible successors whose ambition has long been suppressed.
Top-tier candidates who have been biding their time in lower offices waiting for an opportunity now have decisions to make. Among them are Democrats Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris, two of the brightest emerging stars in a state that increasingly elects members of their party.
It won’t be the only route for political advancement. The governor’s office will open in 2018, the final year of Gov. Jerry Brown’s fourth term. There’s also the possibility that 81-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein will opt not to run for re-election that year.
So Boxer’s announcement will force choices: Run for governor or senator? Run for senator now or senator later? Given its rarity, some will find the immediate opening too tempting to pass up.
“There’s a whole generation of Democratic politicians that have come and gone while Senators Boxer and Feinstein have held these seats,” said veteran Democratic strategist Garry South. “If you are an ambitious, young Democrat you are not just going to let these opportunities go.”
California senators have a national platform. They represent the most constituents in the country, and holding the post ensures them a national stage. “The stakes are huge – enormous,” said Douglas Herman, a Democratic consultant.
Though aides to Newsom and Harris would not comment on their thinking Thursday, evidence mounted that the candidates will not be drawn into the same race – at least not in 2016. They share the support of labor unions, environmentalists, progressives and multicultural communities. They also share a consultant, along with friends and donors.
Last fall, the pair hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Party. And on Monday, in what was billed as an intimate ceremony in Sacramento, Harris administered the oath of office for Newsom as he appeared resigned to settle in for another four years as the state’s No. 2.
South, who led Newsom’s brief and unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010, said he suspects the former San Francisco mayor is more interested in running the state. “I don’t think he views himself as a potential backbench senator in a Senate controlled by Republicans,” he said.
Harris, meantime, has worked to expand her profile in Washington. In September, she moved quickly to douse rumors she was interested in replacing Eric Holder as U.S. attorney general.
Neither candidate would be able to clear the Democratic field, but their entry could cause others to sit out the race. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has said he favors running for governor, also is said to be weighing a Senate run.
If more prominent Democrats hold out for 2018, there is likely to be a crush of early interest in 2016. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Treasurer John Chiang and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones could run without relinquishing their statewide posts. House members such as Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra would need to give up their seats to make the race.
Republicans, who hold no statewide offices, have fewer prospects. Many have come to see 2018, a non-presidential year likely to have lower turnout that historically has favored Republicans, as perhaps their best opportunity to win a Senate seat here for the first time since 1988. GOP officials with the highest national profiles, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Darrell Issa, won’t run. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be a model for California Republicans, though she’s long said she isn’t interested.
“She is the dream candidate for Republicans – someone who is one of the most accomplished women in the history of our country,” said Kurt Bardella, a GOP consultant who has worked with Issa. “She would have access to significant financial resources, high name (identification) and would be a phenomenal candidate.
“However, even in the best of circumstances with the best candidate possible, it is still an uphill climb for Republicans, and it’s highly doubtful that Rice would be willing and eager to join this California adventure.”
Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said he doubts many Republicans already holding office will opt to give up their seat to run, though he said that could change if the party is unable to land on a competitive candidate.
Ashley Swearengin of Fresno and Kevin Faulconer of San Diego may fit the bill; however, Faulconer is up for re-election in 2016. Other possibilities include former Brown foe Neel Kashkari and onetime Boxer opponent Carly Fiorina, who has been toying with a presidential bid.
A wild card is the billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer, who like Newsom and Harris issued a statement praising Boxer. Steyer, a Democrat, has been approached to run for political office, and is expected to take the next few days to make a decision on the Senate seat.
He’ll be coveted regardless. Should he remain on the outside as a donor, his blessing and financial assistance could prove a game-changer in a race some consultants anticipate could cost between $35 million and $50 million just to get through the state’s new top-two primary.
“There will be plenty of time to talk about California politics, but right now is a time to celebrate and honor Senator Boxer and the positive differences she has made for all of us,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who works with Steyer, echoing responses from other potential contenders.
Candidates able to largely pay for their own campaigns must consider the precedent set by Meg Whitman, the 2010 candidate for governor who spent more than $140 million and lost by a wide margin to Brown, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
State officeholders, who can transfer only a very limited amount of money to a federal race from their campaign accounts, will have to act swiftly. They’ll be challenged to elevate their donor base to a national level.
As the conversations began, Bob Mulholland, a Democratic activist, described a scenario he envisioned playing out between politicians and their advisers.
“Two dozen today are fantasizing about it, but most will drop the idea after their consultant asks, ‘Can you raise $20 million?’ ” he said.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.