The current revival of the “who-gets-to-run-for-what” show playing on TVs throughout the state and featuring Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and Attorney General Kamala Harris, once again demonstrates that politics is strictly an insider’s game.
The race to replace Senator Barbara Boxer is on and no casting interviews are required.
The main protagonists have already been determined through a process of self-selection, and others interested will have to figure out ways of getting into the spotlight.
That includes numerous wanabees, Democrat and Republican—most of whom will get only cameo appearances since what governs California politics are seven things: name recognition, money, geography, party affiliation, lots of charisma and astute campaign management—not necessarily in that order.
The seventh factor is age which could be a latent issue given the current crop of top-tier incumbents—all of whom (including Boxer) are in their mid-seventies or older.
Both Harris and Newsom are attractive figures who reflect a generational shift in the power structure with ample smarts and big ambitions who could easily be stand-ins for each other with their interchangeable skills if the roles were reversed.
Both score “A’s” on the factors I have highlighted.
With Newsom’s withdrawal, Harris is seeded as the automatic favorite going into the race to succeed Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. The chief risk is becoming an easy target whose qualifications for the plumb job will now be judged against her ongoing actions as the state’s top lawyer for which she has been generally receiving high grades.
The thinking has been that a collision of wills between the two was at some point inevitable. Newsom ruined the plot by taking himself out of consideration with his eye clearly set on the governorship in 2018.
While there is no evidence that the two huddled before the decisions were made, as political realists both understood that a bruising battle would only be counter-productive and this untangles an otherwise messy pathway.
Harris can now begin the daunting task of raising funds and securing endorsements while Newsom still has four years to polish his bona fides with the major risk being that he could draw adverse headlines or simply disappear in a job that often goes unnoticed.
So what about the other “insiders” who would certainly covet at least a six year employment contract? Applying my seven factors, are any likely to catch fire?
First a look at the Democrats:
Former L.A. Mayor and Assembly Speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa, deserves attention but could have trouble raising money and would have to buck history’s trend which gives northerners a big edge in statewide races. Boxer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, are all home-grown Bay Area products.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and a leading advocate for climate change reform, could easily finance his own campaign but lacks any political base, has no elective background, and could turn off voters grown skeptical of candidates whose wealth may be their principal justification for thinking they should run for office.
Rep. Jackie Speier, another Bay Area Democrat, shares Boxer’s liberal ideology and is good on the stump but is unknown throughout much of the state and it is doubtful she has the fund-raising apparatus.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County (Garden Grove) and conservative Democrat, is a Latina in a state where their votes are becoming much more important. However, like Speier, she is a relative political unknown outside her region.
Rep, John Garamendi, a Democrat from the Northern Central Valley outside Sacramento, has no shortage of name recognition having served as the state’s Insurance Commissioner and Lt. Governor. He ran for Governor three times without success and would risk giving up a Congressional seat he only narrowly retained in 2014.
Dave Jones, the current Insurance Commissioner and former Northern California Assemblyman, is telegenic, whip-smart and has been adept at raising funds, but is more likely to focus on the next gubernatorial race.
Ellen Tauscher, the former seven-term East Bay Congresswoman who served as Under Secretary of Arms Control and International Security in the Obama Administration is a centrist much in the mold of her good friend, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and has strong business background. She represented what was formerly a Republican district.
On the GOP side the bench is somewhat shallower.
Neel Kashkari, a young, amiable, well-heeled business executive with strong ties to the Republican establishment, was trounced by Jerry Brown in the November election yet may have earned the chance to run again.
He follows in the footsteps of Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and another potential contender, who spent $140 million of her own fortune only to meet with a similar fate in her 2010 run against Brown.
Carly Fiorina, the former HP CEO who is exploring a presidential bid in 2016 was no match for Boxer in her 2010 electoral debut. But if the GOP decides they want another woman vs. woman race she could get the nod.
Pete Peterson, who works at a Pepperdine University think tank, just ran a spirited campaign for Secretary of State eventually losing to L.A. Democratic State Senator, Alex Padilla. He showed cross-over appeal, but carries the southern California label and would need heavy financial backing.
Currently, Republicans hold no statewide office which is a major impediment for gaining voter recognition.
The recently adopted top-two open primary was expected to produce more competitive races, lessen partisanship and encourage more Independents and third party candidacies. Some ideological moderation has occurred but not enough dollars are flowing to “outsider’ candidates in the primaries to alter the basic political math.
Given California’s very “Blue” electorate, it is more likely Democrats will continue to square off against one another in the general elections—unless candidates with Reaganesque qualities come along.
This being so, the principal challenge for Harris will be to discourage credible candidates in her own party from joining in the fray. With Newsom on the sidelines, a major obstacle has been removed.