How much will race matter in bid to replace Barbara Boxer?

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has emerged as the front-runner for Barbara Boxer's US Senate seat, but the Latino caucus is holding out for a Hispanic candidate.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 16, 2012. Three weeks after announcing her candidacy for the US Senate, Ms. Harris hasn't spoken a word, a strategy that has allowed her to avoid media scrutiny while carefully setting a foundation for the 2016 contest.

The election to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California may still be far off, but already the race is shaping up to be a power face-off between two key voting blocs for the Democratic Party – blacks and the fast-growing Latino population.

Since Senator Boxer announced on Jan. 8 that she would be retiring after her current term ends in 2016, analysts have been parsing the moment as the first waves of a major sea change. Her colleague, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, faces reelection in 2018 and has not yet announced if she plans to run. The two have represented the state of California in the US Senate together since 1992. Gov. Jerry Brown will term out the same year.

There are several reasons why the race matters outside California, analysts say. Besides being America’s most populous state, California is a frequent front-runner when it comes to legislative change. The political revolutions of property tax reform, term limits, and air quality all began in California. So a new generation of California Democrats could greatly influence the coming national debates on immigration, income inequality, and technology.

“This is a political earthquake,” San Francisco-based Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House, told Yahoo News. “You have these tectonic plates shifting in terms of who is in office and what that will mean.”

Pundits are examining the political jockeying to ask what it means for the state’s two political parties. On the Democratic side, that means analyzing whether the state’s growing Latino electorate will seize the opportunity to get one of their own into federal office from a wide slate of possibilities – including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also has national credentials as former head of the US Conference of Mayors.

In recent days, San Francisco Mayor and longtime state Assembly leader Willie Brown – an African-American – publicly urged the former mayor not to run out of “loyalty” to Democrats and candidate Kamala Harris, the half-black state attorney general.

Ms. Harris emerged as a front-runner almost immediately following Boxer’s announcement that she would not seek reelection. Influential Democrats around the country, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, quickly lined up to support her. However, the Hispanic caucus has held off supporting the attorney general in hopes of putting up one of its own, perhaps Mr. Villaraigosa or possibly US Rep. Xavier Becerra.

“It will be a bruising battle and ethnic driven,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

As the United States has become more ethnically diverse, minority voting blocs have become increasingly important in many areas, as evidenced by the GOP's overt wooing of Latino voters in the 2014 primary elections. In California, the demographic shift has been particularly pronounced. In 1992, the California electorate was 82 percent white; by 2012, that number had plummeted to 55 percent. Last march, Latinos surpassed Caucasians as the state’s largest ethnic group, and that gap will continue to widen.

Race will be such a dominant factor in the California Senate race that the GOP runs the risk of being relegated to the sidelines if they are unable to produce an ethnic Republican candidate with some name recognition across the state, analysts say.

“The state GOP has a real problem with regards to making any high-profile California seat competitive,” says David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Beyond the “dearth of candidates that can appeal to a presidential-year, general-election electorate ... the state GOP suffers from a reputation as intolerant and incapable of growing segments of the electorate on issues of importance to the state’s voters.”

However, others say the attention to race in this election is overblown.

“No Senate race has ever revolved solely around the issue of ethnic one-upmanship between competing ethnic groups,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and author of several books on the black image in America.

“It will be decided on issues, electability, political competence, and fundraising prowess and party politics,” he says.

Whatever happens, Hispanics here feel they don’t want California to shift the way much of the country already has.

"When the rest of the country swung towards the Republicans in the last midterm election, California maintained the political status quo even with historic low turnout rates at the polls," says Apolonio Morales, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).

"That speaks volumes to what we will see in the 2016 presidential elections," he says. "If you are running for office as a Republican, especially for senator in California, chances are very slim anyone will take your effort seriously."

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