Look out, Californians. A new political gold rush has begun.
And it’s going to be messy.
For the past four years, a state that has made an industry of valorizing the young and the new has been overseen by Gov. Jerry Brown, 76, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 81, and Sen. Barbara Boxer at 74.
But on Thursday Boxer triggered a Golden State political earthquake, announcing that she would not seek a fifth term in 2016.
Advisers to Kamala Harris, the state’s popular attorney general, have already begun reaching out to possible staffers and campaign bundlers, according to one source familiar with the outreach.
Harris has made criminal-justice reform her signature issue and has aggressively taken on banks over improper foreclosures in her one term as the state’s chief law-enforcement officer.
Boxer’s retirement before 2016 had been long predicted—although the timing of it on Thursday was so sudden that it even caught her longtime friend House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unprepared—and with Brown termed out in 2018, and Feinstein likely to retire when her term is up that year as well, the Golden State looks set for a political sea change.
Some California Democrats have hoped the potential vacancies would permit the three most well-known office holders in the state to divide the opening seats among them.
If all goes according to plan, Harris would take one seat, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would take another, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom would grab a third.
But since those rosy scenarios were first floated, the California political scene has grown more crowded. Eric Garcetti succeeded Villaraigosa and has received high marks in his first year and a half on the job. Then there’s hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who donated $74 million in 2014 to Democrats who pledged to tackle climate change, and has refused to rule out a career in politics.
Rep. Xavier Becerra emerged as a progressive champion in the House of Representatives but has seen his career there increasingly stalled as Democrats fall deeper into the minority.
So far, all the players seemed to be willing to wait their turn.
On Thursday, Garcetti ruled himself out of the race to succeed Boxer. “I love my job and I love my city and I am committed to the work here,” he said in a statement. “I will not run for Sen. Boxer’s seat.” Newsom will likely be out if Harris runs since the two are considered allies, California political insiders said.
Harris is unlikely to see a challenge from Villaraigosa, either.
Four days before Boxer’s announcement, Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Daily News that he was leaning toward a campaign for governor. “Having been a legislator and a mayor, I particularly enjoy being a chief executive,” he said.
“I don’t think Democrats want to spill blood on this,” said John Thomas, a California Democratic consultant. “So it’s going to be, ‘Who wants to be governor, who wants to be senator, who can wait. Let’s sort this thing out.’ It’s easy to imagine Kamala Harris horse-trading her way into being the front-runner. The question then becomes how do you make sure you are first in line in 2018.”
But even without an obviously competitive Democratic challenger, Harris would still have the challenge of the election process in California.
The Golden State employs a top-two primary system, which means that the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, will face off in the general election in 2016. This could provide opening to a Democrat not in the Harris/Villaraigos/Newsom triumvirate, and nearly all of the large congressional delegation is likely to take a look at running. If Orange County Democrat Loretta Sanchez is the only Latino in the race, she could potentially have up to 25 percent of the vote in her corner, according to political analysts, a good head start in a multi-candidate field.
The open process could also provide an opening for Republicans in deeply blue California, as it has in a couple of Democratic-leaning congressional districts in 2012 and 2014.
But if Democrats are faced with the reality of a glut of qualified candidates, Republicans are assembling more of a fantasy team.
Republicans there said that their dream candidate would be former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, currently a professor at Stanford. Rice however has shown no real interest in politics.
Former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina lost badly to Boxer in 2010, and has been laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign.
Former U.S Treasury official Neel Kashkari was routed by Brown in 2014, but is 41, a good fundraiser and—as the child of Kashmiri parents—gives the party a new, diverse face for a party still struggling with an anti-immigrant reputation earned in the 1990s.
Firebrand Congressman Darrell Issa could self-fund in part, and would likely be the top vote-getter among Republicans, but is expected to struggle in a statewide race.
But so-called jungle primaries are notoriously hard to predict or poll. Harris is a half-black, half-Asian former district attorney of San Francisco, and if a number of other Northern Californians get into the race, it could create an opening for a Southern Californian or someone who is able to consolidate different pieces of the puzzle. And if two Democrats make it out of the primary, it would mean that the way to win a general election would mean grabbing a large portion of the Republican vote.
Although most would-be contenders refused to show their hand in the hours after Boxer’s announcement, many were said to be huddling with advisers to figure out the next move in what could be one of the most expensive and bloodiest Senate campaigns any state has ever seen.
“I am sure they are all meeting with their pollsters, their consultants, and preparing for this as if it were a presidential race, which is what the scope of it almost will be,” said John Shallman, a Democratic consultant. “This is going to be the Game of Thrones of U.S. Senate races.”