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Scramble Starts for Barbara Boxer’s Senate Seat

Boxer, center, is a California Democrat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Boxer, center, is a California Democrat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Thursday announcement she will not seek re-election kicked off what will likely be one of the most competitive — and expensive — Senate races of 2016.  

Democrats have a deep bench of potential candidates, some of whom are salivating at the opportunity to run for California’s first open Senate seat in 24 years. But with 10 media markets, including four massive ones, seeking statewide office in California is an expensive proposition. And so far, there is no clear front-runner.  

“There’s no one who you would consider a dominant candidate, who really has an edge over the others,” said California Democratic pollster Dave Metz.  

Conversations with California elected officials and political operatives yielded four top Democrats with the name recognition and the fundraising ability to compete for the Senate seat: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and billionaire Tom Steyer.  

Democrats said the list of potential candidates grows from there to include Treasurer John Chiang, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and Controller Betty Yee.  

Several California operatives said a number of those candidates might prefer to run for governor in 2018, when Gov. Jerry Brown is required to step down due to term limits. Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, mounted a bid for governor in 2008 but dropped out after trailing Brown in the polls.  

Still, for constitutional officers like Harris, Newsom, Chiang, and Padilla, a 2016 Senate race could be a appealing option. None of them are up for re-election in 2016, meaning they would have a free pass to run for the seat without giving up the offices they currently hold.  

For members of California’s congressional delegation, a Senate bid would be more risky because they must give up their House seats to run. Still, at least one member is considering it.  

Rep. Loretta Sanchez told CQ Roll Call she was “not ruling it out.” California Democrats said Reps. John Garamendi, Adam B. Schiff, and Jackie Speier might consider bids as well.  

Reps. Mark Takano, Julia Brownley, and Ami Bera told CQ Roll Call Thursday they had no intention of running.  

In other states, operative often see House members as favorites for Senate races. But the size of California makes it difficult for someone representing one of the state’s 53 districts to have a statewide profile.  

Boxer rebuffed questions about how involved she would be in choosing her successor, calling the inquiries “premature” on a Thursday conference call with reporters.  

But, she said in her retirement message , she hoped the seat would remain in progressive hands.  

“We desperately need people in the Senate who are gonna fight for privacy rights and civil rights and voting rights and make sure the environment is protected, and protect our people from climate change, and fight for the middle class,” she said. “We need someone to be a champion of those things.”  

Some members of California’s delegation echoed that sentiment.  

“I think California needs at least one senator that represents that progressive sense of liberalism that Barbara Boxer represents,” Takano told CQ Roll Call outside the House chamber.  

Boxer said “if there’s a discernible difference” between two Democratic candidates, and one is more clearly willing to work on the issues that she prioritized and the other is not, then “of course I’d step in.”  

For Republicans, the pickings are slim. Some California Republican operatives struggled to come up with the name of someone who could be competitive — and who would be willing to do it.  

“Unfortunately, our bench isn’t very deep,” said Republican consultant Reed Galen, who is based in California.  

Democrats hold all the statewide offices in California, so there are few Republicans with the name recognition of some of the potential Democratic contenders. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who currently teaches at Stanford University, ruled out a bid Thursday.  

Republicans suggested several of the candidates who ran for statewide office in 2014: Neel Kashkari, who ran for governor; Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who ran for controller; Pete Peterson, who ran for secretary of state. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Rep. Doug Ose, who lost a comeback bid to Congress last year, are also potential candidates.  

In a statement, the NRSC did not commit to being involved in the race, which could require significant resources.  

“This could be the first of many Senate retirements thanks to their new Democrat minority status,” said NRSC Communications Director Andrea Bozek. “Today’s news raises the question whether there will be additional Democrat Senate retirements on the horizon. Senate Democrats are already $20 million in debt and Senator Boxer’s retirement can’t be welcome news for the DSCC who has to defend a costly and hotly contested open seat,”  

The lack of a strong Republican candidate could become irrelevant in the general election: California’s top-two primary system means the top two finishers in the primary continue to the general, regardless of party. It is entirely possible those top two finishers could be Democrats.  

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