Does California politics have a new top rivalry?

Sure, all the hype right now is about Gavin Newsom v. Antonio Villaraigosa, and the already-well-underway contest for the governorship. Less remarked upon has been a rivalry with a longer horizon (2020) but with higher stakes: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris vs. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

They are California’s two possible contenders for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020. And the contest between them is already on.

It’s not white-hot, not yet. And there are no signs of hard feelings. But Garcetti is starting to travel to other states on missions that look indisputably political. Most recently, he went to Manchester, New Hampshire – a city that no Californian visits without a political interest (and I say that as someone who has been there dozens of times)) – to campaign for a Democratic mayoral candidate.

Harris, meanwhile, is being talked up as a presidential possible and building a national profile to complement her already national fundraising base.

If they continue to pursue the presidency, the two are destined to clash. Both will try to run as young, fresh-faces of mixed racial and ethnic background from California. But is there really room in a presidential race for two people with that profile? Or could there be an unofficial California primary of the sorts between the two to see who gets most of the state’s Democratic backing in the presidential primaries?

There are natural points of competition between the two. Harris is from Northern California (though she and her husband now have a home in L.A.), and Garcetti is from the South. She’s the statewide official holding federal office. Garcetti has never been anything but a local official.

So far, the most intriguing thing about the rally is how Garcetti is playing the presidential game in a very Harris sort of way. The U.S. senator has been distinguished in her career by making forceful, early moves when she seeks a new office. By declaring her Senate candidacy so early, she was able to clear the field of dangerous opponents. In California, a huge state of 39 million people who all have better things to do than politics, moving first offers decided advantages.

Garcetti is now doing that, putting himself far more forward as a presidential contender than Harris. That’s because the political calendar is now in his favor. He just won re-election to a mayoral term that will last more than 5 years (a quirk related to a shift in the city election calendar to realign it with state elections). Harris, meanwhile is in her first year in the Senate and has to pooh-pooh the presidential talk and emphasize that she’s learning her current job.

Garcetti also operates in an ideologically friendly political environment where he has significant power and is an executive. Harris is the Senate minority during the Trump era, which will make it next to impossible for her to rack up accomplishments.

It will be interesting to watch to see if and how Harris counters Garcetti’s rise if he gains traction. And if you hear Garcetti criticize Democrats in Washington, you can be sure that he’s aiming at least in part at Harris.