Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s announcement yesterday that she won’t seek re-election for the seat she’s held for 22 years jolted California politics, potentially setting off a long-awaited skirmish among a crop of ambitious rivals.
The decision wasn’t wholly unexpected, several analysts said. But symbolically, it was momentous, representing the start of what high-profile names in the state have wanted for many years. A slate of politicians in their 70s and 80s is now starting to leave, making room for those itching to advance.
In addition to Boxer’s retirement, the governor’s mansion will be open when Gov. Jerry Brown (D), 76, finishes his term in 2018. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 81, is up for re-election in 2018. She hasn’t yet revealed her plans.
"This is sort of the beginning of a wave of the new group that’s been waiting in the wings for quite some time for the two Senate seats and the governorship," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University. "Essentially, the three most important seats in the California political system have been held by people in their 70s. There’s a whole group of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, who are very prominent who have been patiently waiting their turn."
Potential Democratic contenders for the Boxer seat include Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, state Controller John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was seen as a possible candidate until he tweeted yesterday: "I love my job and I love my city and I am committed to the work here. I will not run for Sen. Boxer’s seat."
There could also be competition for the Boxer seat from Democratic House members, including Reps. Xavier Becerra, Loretta Sanchez and Linda Sanchez.
"The question has been ‘When does it really get underway?’ and here we are," said Darry Sragow, a veteran California-based Democratic strategist and attorney. "There are a lot of people who have, over the last 20-some-odd years, looked at themselves in the mirror and saw a U.S. senator, and there was nothing they could do about it."
The seat is all but guaranteed to go to a Democrat, several people said. The state has an open primary system where the top two vote getters advance, regardless of political party. California has far more Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.
In fact, the state has become more liberal in the 22 years since Boxer and Feinstein first were elected to their Senate seats in 1992, Sonenshein said. There are more Asian-American and Latino voters. Hispanics make up 38 percent of the population and are 26 percent of eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. More young people would be likely to turn out in a presidential election year and tend to vote Democratic.
"This was very much a battleground state when Boxer and Feinstein came in," Sonenshein said. "Now it’s a foregone conclusion" that a Democrat will win.
If a large number of Democrats run, that could split the vote, and a Republican might place in the top two. But it’s more likely a Republican will land in the third spot, said Mike Madrid, a Republican who is a partner at GrassrootsLab, a California-based political consulting and research firm.
"There’s not enough Republican votes" in the state, he said.
Another GOP strategist said that a competitive Republican candidate might choose to run as an independent.
"A very wealthy, no-party-preference candidate might come out, one who might normally run as a Republican, to run against a very progressive Democrat," said Allen Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, a political tip sheet. "That could be an interesting race."
"I’m sure there’s some bored millionaires out there who might be able to self-fund their own campaign who might take a look at running for it," he said. "I’d be very surprised if it turns out that any one person could clear the field; there’s too many ambitious people out there."
Eyes now on Harris, Newsom
Voters are likely to be excited about the opportunity to vote for a new senator, Sragow predicted. A poll last fall found that voters were eager for new options. Sixty percent said California would benefit from a change, with 48 percent saying they felt "strongly" that the state needed different candidates, the poll from University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times said (Greenwire, Nov. 10, 2014).
Voters in that survey gave the highest approval marks to Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, who won 30 percent favorable ratings versus 19 percent unfavorable marks. They rated Villaraigosa 30 percent positive to 22 percent negative and Harris 26 percent favorable to 12 percent unfavorable.
For now, there’s a series of calculations that the potential candidates must make about when and how to move, several analysts said. Those interested in higher offices must weigh their chances for success in battling for the Senate seat, or holding back and running for governor. The Senate seat isn’t term-limited, they noted, but the gubernatorial post is seen as more powerful and a potential launching pad to a presidential run.
Several experts described Harris as having major advantages in the political scramble. A Democratic woman already starts with an 8-point advantage, said Madrid, who has analyzed voter turnout. Female Democratic voters are likely to vote for female candidates over males, he said.
Additionally, Harris is from San Francisco, where she was once the city’s leading prosecutor. The state’s political power base is in the nine-county Bay Area, Madrid said, adding, "There’s a huge, huge structural advantage that benefits people from the Bay Area."
And while there are more voters in the Los Angeles area, the voters in the Bay Area are more likely to turn out. In November, that differential was a margin of 13 points, he said.
Other candidates might wait to see if Harris gets in or if she waits to run for governor, Madrid said.
"Kamala can chose the seat she wants, at least at this point in the game," Madrid said. "As woman attorney general from San Francisco with $20 million in the bank, those are three huge advantages that no one else even comes close to."
In a statement yesterday praising Boxer, Harris didn’t indicate her future plans.
"For over three decades, Senator Barbara Boxer has served the people of California with an unwavering commitment to bettering the lives of her constituents and all Americans," Harris said. "Senator Boxer is a true progressive champion and a tireless advocate for California’s priorities. I know she will never stop fighting for what matters, and I wish her all the best."
Newsom will likely try to wait and see if Harris runs for Senate before deciding whether to join the race, Madrid said. If Harris does run, Newsom might hang back and run for governor instead. The two are allies — in fact, earlier this week, Newsom, who is 47, was sworn in for a second term as lieutenant governor by Harris, who is 50.
Newsom also issued a statement that praised Boxer but did not speak to his ambitions.
"With the courage of her convictions and the unflinching spirit of a true warrior-advocate, Senator Barbara Boxer has earned a seat in the pantheon of great California leaders," Newsom said. "On issue after issue, she has given voice to the voiceless, spoken truth to power, shined a bright light on injustices previously ignored, and brought dignity and honor to a profession that too often loses sight of those qualities."
Sragow said that the three front-runners — Harris, Newsom and Villaraigosa, who is currently teaching at the University of Southern California — could find a way to divide up the electoral spoils.
"Harris and Newsom and Villaraigosa all share Ace Smith as their consultant. There’s speculation that Ace is busy cutting deals here. Presumably, it’s in Ace Smith’s interest to find a home for all three of his clients, but that’s just rank speculation," Sragow said.
Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
Routes to name recognition
Analysts disagreed over whether candidates would need to pick between the Senate race in 2016 and the governor’s race in 2018. Sonenshein said the politicians likely would pick one race, because if they lost in the Senate race, they would be less attractive as a gubernatorial contender.
But Madrid said that some candidates interested in the governor’s mansion might benefit from running for Senate first, even if they lose. If they run a clean campaign, the race gives them media attention and helps them raise their profile at a lower cost. They also build a campaign structure and donor base at the same time, he said.
Villaraigosa, if he wants to run for governor, needs to keep his name in the news, Madrid said, and running for Senate first could be an option.
Some candidates beyond Harris and Newsom are interdependent, Madrid said. It will be difficult for a Latino male from Los Angeles to get elected, he said, because he would already start at a disadvantage from a turnout point of view. It will be additionally hard, he said, if there’s more than one candidate in that category; Padilla and Villaraigosa could pull votes from each other if both got in.
Analysts disagreed about whether Latino candidates have an advantage. Sragow noted that the number of elected officials in California who are Latino has "grown astronomically" since Feinstein and Boxer were first elected — mentioning Becerra, Linda Sanchez, Loretta Sanchez and Padilla as prime examples.
Becerra, in particular, could be competitive for Boxer’s seat, Sragow said.
"He plays a very important role in Democratic leadership in the House, he’s well-regarded, and he’s from L.A., so he has at least L.A. as a base," he said.
Becerra, 56, is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — and could rise even higher in the party leadership on Capitol Hill when more senior members like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) move on.
Madrid said that while there are more Latinos in California, they don’t turn out to vote as much as non-Hispanic whites. And there’s the big gap between voter turnout for Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
"L.A.’s voter turnout has been on a 20-year decline," he said.
Madrid also said he doesn’t see any House member — with the exception of Pelosi — having the name recognition to run successfully for Senate. It’s very expensive, he said, especially in Los Angeles’ media market.
"The last person to run statewide from a House seat was Boxer, and she won because there were three men in primary and she was from the [San Francisco] East Bay," Madrid said. From a House seat representing California, he said, "you’re not going to go anywhere unless fortune smiles on you or you have an enormous fortune."
Boxer represented Marin County, just north of San Francisco, in the House for 10 years, beginning in 1983. Prior to that, she spent six years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
Beyond the obvious names, a candidate could also step forward who’s not currently in office, or one who’s not as visible, the analysts said.
Other possibilities include Bobby Shriver, son of the late Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Sonenshein said. Bobby Shriver recently ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, in a blog post yesterday on The Wall Street Journal‘s website, offered another name from that family.
"An even more intriguing alternative is former [California] first lady Maria Shriver, who has the resources, connections, and heritage to pull off a Senate win," Schnur said. He was comparing Maria Shriver as a candidate to billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, not her brother.
Hoffenblum said he didn’t think Steyer, who has been touted in recent years as a possible candidate for governor or Senate, would run if Harris or Newsom put their hat in.
"I doubt if he’d run against one of the established progressive Democrats," he said. "He’s no household name."
Turnover not necessarily bad
California experts downplayed the effect of the eventual loss of both of California’s senators.
"The Congress hasn’t been much help for a long time," said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a nonprofit industry coalition.
Madrid noted that there are different routes to power in the Senate. While Feinstein wanted to pass legislation, Boxer chose instead to shape the debate on issues, he said.
"She was formative in a lot of public policy issues," Madrid said, and a junior senator just starting out could take that path. He added, "I don’t think it’s going to affect California’s influence one little bit."