Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D) retirement announcement, as we mentioned in previous columns, has set off a political firestorm in the Golden State. An open Senate seat for the first time in what will be 24 years has given aspiring statewide officeholders, particularly among Democrats, their first glimpse of attaining a major federal office. More than 30 people have been mentioned as potential candidates, but events of the last few days have begun to clarify the picture.
The state’s relatively new jungle primary law (2016 will mark the third election since its institution) makes this a much more interesting race. Before, particularly in a place that has trended so heavily toward one party in the last two decades, winning the June Democratic primary would have been tantamount to a general election victory. No more.
Now, with all candidates on the same primary ballot and the top two advancing to the general election irrespective of party affiliation with no ability to win outright on the first vote means a number of general election configurations could result. Typically, a Democrat and a Republican advance. But, if the GOP doesn’t have a capable candidate – a possibility in this overwhelmingly expensive state in what will be a long shot for them at best – two Democrats could qualify. On the other hand, if we see a large number of strong Democrats entering the race, which is a distinct possibility, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that two Republicans could actually advance if the Democratic vote is split relatively evenly among a number of the contenders. Over the past two primaries, Republican turnout has been much better proportionately than Democratic, so this possibility merits attention.
The top two individuals being mentioned as potential Democratic candidates are Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris. Both are fresh from re-election victories and will be legally ineligible to seek another term in four years from their current positions. There is a good possibility that neither of them runs for the Senate in 2016, however. First, the two are political allies, so it is highly unlikely that they will run against each other. Second, with Gov. Jerry Brown (D) being term-limited in 2018 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) likely to retire that year – she’ll be 85 – two major statewide positions will be open. Newson and Harris waiting until 2018 could give both an easier road for one to run for governor and the other for Senate.
Though as many as eight members of the House delegation are mentioned as possible senatorial candidates, it is likely that no more than one or two will actually make the run. It is very difficult for a district representative to run statewide in this mega-state. Thus, particularly for majority Republicans, it is almost a certainty the individual would be relinquishing a seat in the House for the privilege of losing a Senate race.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA-46), however, is already taking concrete steps toward running. Already actively seeking endorsements and support, Rep. Sanchez claims to now have $1 million in pledges for a Senate race.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA-3) may be one of the House members more serious about taking the plunge. He has won three previous statewide races, two as insurance commissioner and one as lieutenant governor. On the other hand, his trio of foiled attempts for governor have ended even before he left the starting gate so his ability to perform as a top candidate in a major statewide race is questionable.
The most serious early potential 2016 candidate appears to be former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who will clearly be formidable coming from such a large population base. His position is strengthened by incumbent LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) already declaring that he will not run for the Senate.
Another potential to watch is Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis (D). Though a local office, LA County Supervisor is one of the more powerful offices in California. Having only five local districts, it takes more than one million votes for a candidate to win election. Solis also served as US Labor Secretary under President Obama before returning home to run for her current position. Her resume includes time in the US House and California legislature.
For Republicans, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen ran a relatively close race for state Controller, losing 46-54%. She confirms interest in the Senate race and, like in the Controller’s race, would have a good chance of uniting enough Republicans to qualify her for the general election. Don’t expect any sitting GOP House member to run. The only Republican congressional incumbent mentioned is Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA-39), but it’s unlikely he will forfeit a safe seat for a long shot statewide effort. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA-49), who ran for Senate in 1998, has already declared that he will not enter the open seat statewide campaign.
This Senate race will continue to produce political news all the way through the 2016 elections. It could become one of the most interesting campaigns of the succeeding cycle.