California Attorney General Kamala Harris is, for now, the leading candidate to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, by dint of his money, is her strongest potential challenger.
(Update: On Thursday, Steyer announced on Huffington Post, that he will not run for Senate in 2016 and will instead work to elect a Democratic president and to advance the fight against climate change.)
But one other Democrat – despite plenty of personal and political baggage – has the potential to upend the dynamics of the race: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (formerly Tony Villar or Tony V in Calbuzz parlance).
If – and this is huge – he can find a way to scoop up fund-raising people who know how to pull together millions under federal limitations, Tony V could make it past the June top-two election and run a competitive race for Senate, especially if Steyer decides not to get in. For one thing, he’d be the only brand-name Latino in a state where that could matter.
Whether Harris will be a formidable candidate in the harsh light of a top-of-the-ticket campaign has yet to be determined. At least two unaligned top political consultants told Calbuzz she could turn out to be a paper tiger. “She’s very full of herself,” said one, “and voters might not like that about her.”
“What evidence is there that’s she a juggernaut? That she barely beat Steve Cooley?” said another, referring to her 2010 election rival. Her 2014 re-election can be dismissed as a walk-over: nobody even remembers who ran against her (hint: the Hobbit, Ron Gold). Moreover, this consultant said, not only is California “overdue to elect a Latino, but “nobody seems to have noticed that there are five million registered voters in L.A. County and 2.5 in the Bay Area.”
L.A. bravado, however, has to be tempered by actual voting history, as our old friend Cathy Decker of the ByGod LA Times explained so well Sunday: Angelenos, especially LA Latinos, have pathetic voter turnout compared to their counterparts in the Bay Area. Whether Tony V could capture the big bloc of L.A. voters (especially if Hillary Clinton is on the ballot for president, drawing women to the polls) is problematic at best.
Been a Long Time Coming One thing that renders the Senate race uncertain is that the last time California had an open seat was 23 years ago, when Dianne Feinstein beat Gray Davis in the Democratic primary for the final two years of Senator-cum-Governor Pete Wilson’s seat, and then buried political pygmy John “Sell Your Boat” Seymour, while Barbara Boxer beat Democrats Mel Levine and Leo McCarthy for the open six-year seat that the late Alan Cranston had held.
Californians have not seriously considered what they want from a U.S. Senator in more than two decades, during which the political landscape, especially in terms of gender and race, has shifted substantially. By and large, the dominant Democrats are very comfortable with women, Latinos, blacks, Jews, you name it, in high office. But what kind of senator they want when given an open choice – a deal-maker, a spokesperson, a statesman (or -woman) — is unclear.
Will it matter, for example, that Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have endorsed Harris? Will her checkered record as District Attorney in San Francisco mean anything in a Senate race? Would Steyer look like an engaged, Cincinnatus-style citizen, or the hedge-fund spawn of Al Checchi and Meg Whitman? Would voters – especially women – care that while Tony V’s wife Cornia was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, he had an affair with a friend’s wife?
And that’s just a few of the iceberg tips out there. None of these public figures have been scrutinized, op-researched, dissected and pummeled at the level that applies to a U.S. Senate (or governor’s) race. With all the talented and ruthless consultants who will be working the Senate race – many of them FOCs (Friends of Calbuzz) – this will not be a dinner party.
DiFi Hates Unpleasantness Speaking of dinner parties, one pol who found running in a statewide election with serious opposition incredibly distressing and distasteful is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was so traumatized by Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Huffington’s 1994 expensive and nasty campaign against her, she has shied away from hand-to-hand combat ever since, opting out of running for governor twice, when she would have been the favorite, albeit in fiercely competitive fields.
Most folks in the political world are betting that when Feinstein’s seat comes up again in 2018 – at which time she’ll be 85 – the very senior Senator will choose not to run again, and some politicos are already plotting ahead to 2018 as an opportunity for an open Senate seat.
We don’t buy the certainty of her retirement. After all what would DiFi do all day if she weren’t in the Senate, where she’s earnestly devoted to the complexities of huge issues — and commands a queen’s court worth of policy minions, political retainers and personal purse holders? As long as her health remains good – bum knee aside — we’ll take those long odds and bet on DiFi plugging along in pursuit of Strom Thurmond’s centenary record as the oldest-serving Senator, knowing she’d have no serious (i.e. nasty, well-funded) opposition in California.
Said one plugged-in Senate source: “I don’t think she’s spending a lot of time thinking about” 2018. “She likes working in the Senate and has important responsibilities. I would not be surprised if she ran again.”
Moreover, Democrats have a good chance of winning back the Senate in 2016 as they need defend only 10 seats while Republicans have two dozen of their own seats to hold. So the Senate could be a lot more fun for DiFi in a couple of years, especially if she takes back chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which suits her eyes-only, the-authorities-know-best personality.
All of which means that if Villaraigosa or Steyer wants to run for Senate, 2016 may be their better bet. Moreover, for either of them, running statewide even in a losing campaign is not a bad play if they want to run for governor in 2018, after Jerry Brown is termed out, or – should DiFi actually step down – for Senate.
Steyer Weighing Options Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is reportedly getting some polling done and consulting with California Wise Men (don’t miss Chris Cadelago’s good Sunday piece) and Steyer, according to advisers who spoke to Calbuzz and others, is considering whether a Senate race would help or hinder his No. 1 concern – combating climate change. He’s also expanded on the agenda he says he’d pursue in one, and only one, term in the Senate, outlining tax and education reforms to his supporters (another h/t to Cadelago).
Some on the environmental left have argued that making himself a singular target, as he would be in a Senate campaign, would personalize and thus undermine his cause. He is a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton and backing her campaign for president, while continuing to invest in measures and candidates against climate change, might be a more productive way forward.
Of course, since the governor of California is vastly more powerful than any single U.S. Senator – a fact well-known to Steyer’s advisers – he likely is calculating whether seeking to become governor would be more advantageous for the fight against climate change. (This, btw, would put our friend Jason Kinney in a pickle since he’s a consultant to both Steyer and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – a sure-fire candidate for governor in 2018.)
But what about the party of Lincoln? Republicans, meanwhile, with about
29% 28%, steadily sinking statewide registration and a party platform that still opposes abortion, gay marriage and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, are hardly a factor in the 2016 Senate race. Unless an unexpected top-rank candidate should emerge — like former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (who has never been subjected to campaign-level scrutiny).
We asked California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte if his party would have any credible candidates for Senate in 2016 and he replied “Absolutely.” But when we asked for some examples, he refused to comment, insisting he and his party are concentrating on open California Senate seats – not the 2016 election.
Doubtless, the state GOP is quivering with excitement to know that Phil Wyman of Tehachapi, a former member of the state Senate and Assembly, who won less than 12% of the vote for Attorney General in June 2014, says he’s “strongly considering a run for the U. S. Senate in 2016.” Lock up the kids, Maude.
Back in the real world, which is to say, the world that we live in, Steyer’s advisers (who say they’re really not sure what he will do) – expect him to make a decision and announcement early this week. Whatever that decision, it will surely have impact on Villaraigosa who – without a political office as a base or vast personal wealth – has a difficult challenge.
While a known figure like Jerry Brown might be able to run a statewide race for $30 million, virtually any one else is looking at three or four times that amount – a huge sum to raise in
$1,000 $2,600 federal increments.
For Steyer, this is couch change. Which is both a blessing and — as eMeg et. al. have proved — a curse.