Senate Race Is No Done Deal

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


The “conventional wisdom” has California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris all but sworn in as Senator Barbara Boxer’s successor.  Not so fast.

Harris is off to a good start. By stepping out first and unhesitantly, the Attorney General has garnered a lot of endorsements and media coverage.   She has attained “front runner” status in the eyes of many, but the field hasn’t even formed and there is a long way to go before the real campaign begins.

With Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome training his sights on the Governor’s office, Harris certainly can claim to be the preeminent Bay Area candidate circling the Boxer seat. Early polls—for what they’re worth so far out—show Harris strong among women voters and her multi-ethnic heritage–part African-American, part Indian-American– should bolster her standing with those voters. 

Harris is also a favorite of Obama world.  The President has already begun helping her raise her policy profile.

All that adds up to a pretty good base, but hardly enough to create a pre-campaign lock on the Senate seat. Candidate Harris barely squeaked by in her only contested statewide contest–the 2010 A.G. race. In one of the closest elections in California’s history, Harris defeated then-Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who had the dreaded “R” next to his name on the ballot,

There is currently a myth that Northern California practically has a lock on statewide elections—including the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.

This myth is based on the fact that these Senate seats have been held by two Bay Area incumbents for more than two decades; it is fostered by  the reality that voter turnout in Southern California has been embarrassing low. According to voting analyst Paul Mitchell,” Bay Area counties outperformed Southern California”  in last November’s election.

Well, turnout patterns can change in a hotly contested race and 2016 will be a Presidential year.  The Harris camp better not rely on Los Angeles voters sleeping through this one.  Anyone who thinks that the North has a lock on the top of the ticket should remember that, with the exception of Jerry Brown–who holds dual citizenship, there hasn’t been a northerner elected Governor since Pat Brown won the office in 1958.  Governors Deukmejian, Wilson, Davis and Schwarzenegger all hailed from the South.

Harris has two hurdles.  First she has to get through the top-two primary and then she has to prevail in a runoff against either another Democrat or a Republican standard-bearer.  There is no telling how she will do in the spotlight.  Harris has never had to vie at the top of the ticket.

So far, she has sidestepped talking about the big senatorial issues—national security and foreign policy, for example. But she will have to weigh in, as she begins campaigning in earnest and as other candidates enter the arena.  She’ll also have to prove herself as a retail politician with the charisma and stamina to go the distance in this large and complex state.

That brings us to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who seems poised to enter the race.  Although he has been thinking about running for Governor in 2018, the Senate contest may be an opportunity he can’t pass up, particularly since many Latino elected officials and leaders believe it is their community’s turn to strive for one of the big jobs.  Unlike the Attorney General, Villaraigosa is a proven retail campaigner with boundless energy, a great gift of gab and a big smile.

He also comes with lots of baggage—a messy divorce, linked to an affair with a television anchorwoman,  some unfortunate pictures of the former Mayor partying in Mexico with Charlie Sheen and a sense that his term as Mayor didn’t live up to his bold promises and expectations.

He can, however, show some tangible accomplishments, particularly in the area of transportation where he successfully lobbied the powers that be in Washington to help jump start an ambitious transit agenda.

Several members of the California Congressional delegation are also pondering the race, but would have to give up their seats to run.  Although frustrated junior Democrats, checkmated by their minority status, might be more likely to jump ship than their Republican colleagues.

Moreover, House members from California largely toil out of the limelight, save for ubiquitous appearances on cable news shows.

Still, someone like Congressman Adam Schiff could be a real wildcard, if he takes the plunge.  Schiff is a moderate with a mastery of the issues.  He could certainly mobilize the Jewish community—both electorally and financially. If he made a runoff against either Harris or Villaraigosa, Schiff would probably score well with Republicans and independents, as well as with middle of the road Democrats.

The polls that are out there today may show Harris in the cat-bird seat, but that really doesn’t mean much.  Beware the “inevitability curse.” Ask Hillary Clinton 2007. Clinton appeared then to have a lock on the 2008 Democratic nomination.

Washington Post columnist Dan Balz, writing about the current pre-campaign for the 2016 Presidential nomination, observed: “The problem now is that there are often too many conclusions but not enough information. Insiders are eager to connect the dots. Most voters are content to let the candidates come into sharper focus.”

Balz added: “There’s no reason to get too far ahead of it, because no one really knows how it will all unfold.”

The same holds true for California’s U.S. Senate race.

For the first time in ages, there will be real suspense surrounding a top of the ticket race in California and, at this point, nobody knows how it will come out.

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