Politics & Government

In California, a golden political opportunity carries risks

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., served five terms in the House and will have completed 24 years in the Senate by the end of next year.
Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., served five terms in the House and will have completed 24 years in the Senate by the end of next year. MCT

A rare open contest for a U.S. Senate seat in California next year presents a long-awaited opportunity for some of the state’s more politically ambitious House members.

But for them, the opening also requires a tremendous wager: Democrats who take a chance on the post Sen. Barbara Boxer is leaving have to risk safe House seats they would be likely to retain for years to come.

Only a few House members have the name recognition and star power needed to run in such a geographically and demographically diverse state, with some of the country’s most expensive media markets.

Still, some lawmakers could be formidable competitors, depending on the field of candidates, some political observers say.

At least four House Democrats told McClatchy that they’re seriously thinking about running to succeed Boxer, a Democrat who served five terms in the House and will have completed 24 years in the Senate by the end of next year. They are Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove.

Republicans are viewed at this point as underdogs, given their difficulties winning statewide races, particularly in a presidential year, when the higher turnout favors Democrats.

“I think they’re all plausible, viable candidates,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who worked for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is the only official candidate so far. Environmental activist and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer withdrew his name from consideration, while former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to make his intentions official.

The presence of high-profile candidates in the race, such as Harris and Villaraigosa, could put House members at a major disadvantage, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“They’re starting out with a tremendous leg up compared to a House member from any of these districts,” she said. “It’s an uneven playing field.”

Next year’s Senate race is widely expected to break records for campaign spending, and House members considering a run know that’s a high bar.

“It’s an uphill battle for anyone in the House to run,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat who succeeded her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui. He served in the House for more than two decades and considered a Senate run in 1992 but ultimately declined.

Bill Carrick, a veteran political strategist who’s worked for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others, said a serious contender would need to raise $20 million or more. “It’s going to take a lot of dough,” he said.

That’s true for anyone seeking a Senate seat from California. Harris will be under pressure to meet the high expectations that come with being the early favorite, Stutzman said. “She better raise more money than those sitting members of Congress,” he said.

Schiff, vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has about $2 million in unspent campaign funds, according to federal filings. Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has $1.2 million. Sanchez and Garamendi have less than $400,000 each.

Schiff is Jewish and Becerra and Sanchez are Latino, which could appeal to two key constituencies. All three represent Southern California districts rich in potential donors.

Becerra said a Senate run would give him the chance to make a bigger impact on the state. “This doesn’t open up very often,” he said.

But it comes at the risk of losing a safe seat and a position in the leadership of his party should Democrats regain the majority, a long shot next year, given that Democrats would need to gain 30 seats. Becerra, first elected in 1992, won his last three elections by more than 70 percent in a safe, Latino-dominated congressional district.

Schiff said he enjoys his role on the Intelligence Committee and would lead the panel should control of the House flip. He won his last two elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. But an open Senate seat is tempting for him and for many of his colleagues. Many members of the House “look in the mirror every day and see a senator,” he said.

Though crossing to the other chamber may be more difficult for a House member from California than it would be in a less populous state, it’s not impossible. Former Republican President Richard Nixon served two House terms before moving to the Senate in 1950. John Tunney, a three-term House Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1970.

In 1992, two simultaneous Senate vacancies and a banner year for female candidates set a path for the elections of Boxer and Feinstein.

Feinstein had a statewide profile after serving as mayor of San Francisco and making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990. Boxer rose to prominence in the House through her push for the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Boxer was hardly the front-runner when she entered the race, Carrick said, but she “ran a really good campaign. She took off.”

Holding statewide office doesn’t hurt. Garamendi, now in his fourth term in the House, was previously elected as California’s lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

“That ought to count for something,” he said. But Garamendi acknowledges that the electorate has changed in the years since he last ran statewide. And it could prove difficult to reintroduce himself to voters with less than $200,000 in campaign funds, according to federal filings.

Much has changed since the last wide-open California Senate race. There’s the Internet and social media. Voters who decline to state a party preference can participate in the primary, and the top two candidates in the primary move to the general, and they could be from the same party. Latino voters are now more than a quarter of California’s registered voters, the highest proportion in any state.

Personal factors also weigh heavily on any candidate. Matsui said her late husband believed he understood the issues and had the skill set, as well as the fundraising capabilities it would take to win. But when his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, he decided the timing wasn’t right.

“He felt he could not focus on a race like that,” she said. “That is why he removed himself from the race.”

Family could be a decisive factor for any Senate hopeful.

“The four most important votes,” Becerra said, “are from my wife and three daughters.”

Contact Curtis Tate at ctate@mcclatchydc.com. Follow him on Twitter @tatecurtis