The free-for-all that is likely to be the California Senate race got its first official entrant Tuesday with California Attorney General Kamala Harris's announcement that she will run.
"I’m excited to share with you that I’m launching my campaign to represent the people of California in the United States Senate," Attorney General Harris wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "Your support has been crucial to me every step of the way, and I’m asking you to help me build a grassroots campaign that reaches every community of California."
Harris's announcement came a day after California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would not run for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat. Predictions have been rife about just who will enter the ring for a position that has been locked up for decades. Senator Boxer, who announced last week that she would not seek reelection in 2016, has held her office for 22 years. Dianne Feinstein, who will be up for reelection in 2018, has been in office just a few months longer.
"This is the opening salvo," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento, noting that national politics in California has been dominated by those two women for so long that Boxer's retirement is opening up a long-awaited opportunity. "This is the next generation."
Lieutenant Governor Newsom and Harris, both considered immediate front-runners as potential candidates once Boxer announced her retirement, reportedly jockeyed behind the scenes. According to a Politico report, Newsom decided to claim dibs on running for California governor in 2018 – a position Harris had also said she was interested in. By announcing he wasn't going to run for senator, the Politico article says, Newsom forced Harris to quickly declare her intentions, rather than appear hesitant to choose a Senate seat over the governorship.
But that sort of jockeying is only the beginning in a state with a large number of individuals eager for a chance on the national political stage. Billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer has expressed interest, as has former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Both would be formidable candidates.
Other possibilities might include statewide office holders such as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, state superintendent Tom Torlakson, or state treasurer John Chiang, says Dr. O'Connor, as well as California House members and leaders in the state legislature. And that doesn't even take into account the potential Republican entrants to the race.
The race is likely to set up a split between Southern California and Northern California, and between Hollywood and Silicon Valley money, adds O'Connor. With Villaraigosa's Hispanic heritage, Harris's Asian and African-American roots, and several possible women candidates, it also could have some interesting diversity dimensions.
It will also be the first test for an open Senate seat of California's relatively new "top two" primary system, in which the top two vote-getters in the state primary advance to the general election regardless of their political party.
Harris, who has served as the state's attorney general since 2010, has an Indian mother and a Jamaican-American father: When she was elected, she became California's first African-American, Asian-American, and female attorney general. In her e-mail to supporters, Harris highlighted her work to bring "smart, innovative and effective approaches to fighting crime, fighting for consumers and fighting for equal rights for all," and promised to be "a fighter for the next generation on the critical issues facing our country."
She's been considering a rising star in the Democratic party for some time. But in a state that until recently has had nearly all its major offices locked up with long-serving politicians in their 70s and 80s, Harris is one of a large group eager to jump into the openings.
"The sands are shifting, and it would be premature to anoint someone as the leading candidate," says O'Connor.