The fight over who succeeds Sen. Barbara Boxer will not be partisan; it will be racial. For a quarter century, California’s two US Senate seats have been held by white Jewish women. Now the race to succeed her is shaping up to feature the Democratic establishment’s candidate, an African American South Asian woman; a candidate for the surging Latino population; and another white Jew.
The fundamental basis of California politics is no longer partisan politics; it is race. That was certainly apparent in the 2011 Citizens Redistricting Commission which responded to pressure from numerous ethnic groups to produce a map based largely on racial districting. The Commission justified it work by saying that the Voting Rights Act required this in a state as ethnically diverse as California.
For some time the rumor has floated around Sacramento of a plan to send Attorney General Kamala Harris, the African American, to the US Senate in 2016; run Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a white Democrat, for governor in 2018, and then let Treasurer John Chiang, Controller Betty Yee and Secretary of State Alex Padilla fight in 2018 over the seat that Sen. Dianne Feinstein currently holds.
This would replace the three top state offices, currently held by white Democrats all born before Pearl Harbor, with a proper racial balance, so important in the affirmative action conscious California Democratic Party.
That race will be the deciding factor, not partisanship, is also apparent from the one party nature of this very blue state. When Boxer and Feinstein were first elected in 1992, California had a vigorous two party system and both faced strong Republican challenges early in their careers. No more. Republicans actually could have elected a statewide office holder in 2014 had one been adequately funded, but it is impossible in this polarized state to elect a Republican to the US Senate from California, especially in a high turnout presidential election year where national Republicans will not even bother with California.
But that does not mean one cannot make the top two runoff. The probable turnout in the 2016 primary, based on historical trends, will be about 35 percent of registered voters. By June 2016, the presidential contest in both parties will almost certainly be decided, and California voters will have no hot ballot measures to bring them to the polls.
The primary electorate, again based on historical voting behavior, will be about 38 to 40 percent Republican and 45 to 47 percent Democratic (with independents and small parties making up the remainder). Unless some multimillionaire independent decides to run, the November runoff is very likely to be one Democrat and one Republican.
Racial issues could well decide which of the three Democrats advances. It is hard to see former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa making the runoff, because Latino turnout in primaries is too low, as is primary election turnout in his base in Los Angeles County. Heavily funded Assembly Speaker John Perez lost the primary for Controller last June because too few Latinos voted.
That leaves hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer as potentially the only serious opposition to Harris, who will have Democratic Party establishment millions for her campaign. He is an interesting candidate since hedge fund billionaires are not exactly the profile of the modern California Democratic Party, but Steyer’s cause is climate change and fighting Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Natural Gas to saved the environment.
This only has fringe appeal in most states, and Steyer’s attempts to make these issues a big deal in the 2014 campaign flopped badly. But things are different in a low turnout California primary. Steyer will be the candidate of the environmentalist left, which in California means much of Hollywood and the Silicon Valley high techies. He has a base for the asking.
But his larger political base will be as the only white candidate, and as the Jewish candidate. He is Jewish on his father’s side. Steyer’s father, Roy Henry Steyer, was a partner at Sullivan Cromwell, a major Wall Street firm. Steyer started his career in risk arbitrage at Goldman Sachs, and much of his fortune was made on Wall Street, which the Democratic left now despises. To meet the demands of his progressive followers, he is going to be forced to run largely denouncing his own financial background.
But his racial and religious background will be a positive. One result of the Commission redistricting was to drive from office California’s top Jewish members of congress, Rep. Howard Berman, who was once chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and long time liberal lion Rep Henry Waxman, who got a district so gerrymandered by the Commission to satisfy racial needs elsewhere that it was held together only at low tide along the Los Angeles coast. The Steyer candidacy will tell whether a white Jewish Democrat still has a future in California.
Steyer also poses a real danger to Harris making the top two runoff because the 2016 primary electorate is likely to be about 70 percent white. No Republican will have enough money to run a statewide television campaign, and so Steyer could attract enough crossover Republican votes to beat out Harris.
That’s why you can expect a major Democratic Party campaign to begin immediately to push Steyer out of the race, with establishment names and money lining up for Harris who has just announced her candidacy. The last thing Democrats want in California is a racially based Democratic battle to succeed Boxer, but with Harris, Villaraigosa and Steyer as the leading candidates, that is what’s shaping up to happen.