Dan Morain

Opinion: Many will dream of Senate, but money and geography matter

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California speaks in Los Angeles last August about the danger of the Islamic State.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California speaks in Los Angeles last August about the danger of the Islamic State. Associated Press

Suddenly, politicians up and down the state are studying their reflections in the mirror and seeing a United States senator, and no doubt more.

Barbara Boxer’s announcement that she will step down in 2016 after 24 years in the Senate has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Politicians with statewide ambitions – something nearly all have – are conferring with consultants, studying polls, contacting their donors. For some, the chance, no matter how slim, will be too good to pass up.

The race to replace Boxer is at once wide open, except that it’s not. Top contenders will need a national fundraising base of individuals, since corporations cannot directly fund congressional campaigns.

Or they will need to be very wealthy, like environmentalist-billionaire Tom Steyer, although as Gov. Meg Whitman, Gov. Al Checchi, Sen. Carly Fiorina and Sen. Michael Huffington can attest, personal wealth doesn’t always equate to victory.

Among Republicans, perhaps Rep. Darrell Issa of Fallbrook will tire of Congress and throw some of his $400 million-plus at a Senate campaign. Maybe Silicon Valley attorney Duf Sundheim, a thoughtful former chairman of the California Republican Party, will take a shot.

When Boxer was first elected in 1992, Republicans were a force in California. They held the Governor’s Office and office of attorney general. Now, GOP voter registration has fallen below 30 percent, and the party failed in November to claim a single statewide office, again. You’d be wiser to place your nickels in slot machines than bet a Republican will win Boxer’s Senate seat in 2016.

California’s top-two primary will add to the complications. Perhaps there will be the chaos of a half-dozen serious Democrats seeking the office.

No one will get a free ride, but it is a huge prize. California senators matter on the national stage. Whoever wins will arrive as a celebrity in Washington, on short lists for bigger jobs.

Women’s political groups will seek to ensure that a woman replaces Boxer. Organized labor cares deeply, too, seeing California as one of the few safe Democratic bastions.

“Whoever replaces Barbara Boxer should embrace the fact that California is a Democratic state and California senators can be national leaders for justice and equality and working families,” said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s political consultant.

A California Democrat can take strong stands on gun control, health care, environmental advocacy and other hot issues in ways that Democrats from swing states can’t.

“This truly is an opportunity for a new progressive leader for the state and for the country,” said Bill Burton, a consultant who was Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign press secretary.

Although two-thirds of the population is in the southern part of the state, history suggests that the winner most likely will come from Northern California.

Los Angeles County has 4.8 million registered voters. Santa Clara County has 806,000. Both are heavily Democratic. But Santa Clara’s turnout was 32.7 percent in the June primary, dismal but significantly above the statewide average. L.A.’s failed to hit 17 percent, far below the statewide average.

The worst voter turnout among Democrats perennially is in the big Southern California counties, which helps candidates from this side of the Tehachapi range, particularly the Bay Area.

So who will it be? Strong fundraising base. Northern Californian. Lt. Gavin Newsom, perhaps. No doubt he’s looking at it, and would be formidable. But he has three little kids, and seems more intent on the Governor’s Office.

My guess is that Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was sworn in for a second term earlier this week and who swore in Newsom, will run for Boxer’s seat. If she runs, she would be tough to beat.

In her first run for attorney general in 2010, a high-ranking Republican told me that the GOP wanted to stop her, fearing a victory would open a path for her that could be unlimited.

Two of the smartest national Republican strategists, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, worked to defeat Harris. Gillespie’s Republican State Leadership Committee spent more than $1 million to block her, unsuccessfully.

Nor was it coincidental that Obama went out of his way to help Harris, a friend who worked for his election in 2008. He raised money for her in 2010, appearing at a fundraiser on her behalf hosted by former Controller Steve Westly, a wealthy Silicon Valley investor.

Westly, too, has been mentioned. He ran for governor and lost in the primary in 2006. He probably has been looking in the mirror and wondering. If only. Then, maybe. Why not me? They all will.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.

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