Dan Walters

Opinion: Senate seat opens a big Dem split

Nature, it’s been said, abhors a vacuum – and that’s just as true in the unnatural world of politics.

The decline of California’s Republican Party to near-irrelevance created a competitive vacuum, as last year’s elections proved anew.

The GOP saw a very mild comeback in legislative elections, but again, it was frozen out of even a minor statewide office.

As a practical matter, therefore, only Democrats can win a major office. But the competitive vacuum is being filled by increasingly sharp jostling within their party, but mostly along ethnic demarcation lines.

The tendency of dominant political parties to fragment into competitive quasi-parties is not new. We’ve seen it for years in utterly Democratic San Francisco and overwhelmingly Republican Orange County, for instance.

But those instances have mostly involved minute points of ideology. What’s happening in the state Democratic Party now is a conflict of identity politics, pitting long-dominant – and aging – white and black leaders against newly ascendant Latinos and, on occasion, Asian Americans.

Tensions have been quietly building for years, but with the state’s three most desirable offices – the governorship and two U.S. Senate seats – held by aged white politicians, there was no flashpoint.

Then Sen. Barbara Boxer announced she wouldn’t seek a fifth term in 2016 and the underlying conflict flared.

Attorney General Kamala Harris quickly declared her candidacy and the Democratic establishment quickly fell in line behind her. Seemingly, support extended all the way to the White House and her longtime mentor, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, told everyone else to bow out.

Many Latino leaders were angered by Harris’ virtual coronation, seeing it as an insult that freezes out potential Latino candidates such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Congressman Xavier Becerra.

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Latino Caucus stepped in, publicly urging that a Latino candidate challenge Harris and releasing a poll indicating, it said, that having a Latino running would boost voter turnout.

While Harris has “a head start among Democratic candidates … her advantage over her potential opponents is far from overwhelming,” the caucus said.

This is a very delicate situation for party leaders. Most want Harris to waltz into the Senate and become a national political figure, but the appearance of a Latino freeze-out could invite years of open conflict, particularly since Jerry Brown will be giving up the governorship in four years and Sen. Dianne Feinstein might also not seek re-election.

Republican leaders who hope to make their party relevant again know they must attract a much larger share of the growing Latino vote. An ethnic civil war among Democrats could help them.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.