Democrats circle to replace Boxer

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is among those mulling a run to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is among those mulling a run to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is among those mulling a run to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
California Attorney General Kamala Harris

The only definitive word from candidates for the coveted U.S. Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer came Thursday from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I will not run for Sen. Boxer’s seat,” he said in a statement. 

Everyone else was either silent or coy in the hours following Boxer’s surprise announcement that she’ll step down at the end of 2016.

“Today is all about recognizing the public service of Senator Boxer, and nothing more,” said Rhys Williams, spokesman for Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom.

But there's little doubt Newsom and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who have excellent statewide name recognition, are top contenders to replace Boxer, according to USC Political Scientist Dan Schnur. “They are probably the two strongest potential candidates,” he said. “But neither of them would like to run against each other.”

That’s because both are Bay Area Democrats who might draw from the same base of donors and supporters. The two could strike an agreement, given both also have expressed an interest in running for governor in 2018, said Eric Bauman, who heads the LA County Democratic Party.

Bauman phrased it carefully so it didn’t sound like a back room deal that would end with one running for senate and one for governor.

“Adults who are colleagues who are looking at similar races might often have conversations,” Bauman told KPCC.

Potential candidates go far beyond Newsom and Harris.

“There is an entire generation who has been waiting for this opportunity,” said Schnur.

The last competitive race for a U.S. Senate seat without an incumbent running in California was in 1992, when voters elected Boxer and Sen. Diane Feinstein.

This is also the first open competitive race under the top two primary system, which means two Democrats could end up facing each other in the 2016 general election in overwhelmingly Democratic California. 

“So a Democrat who has the ability to reach out to Republican and Independent voters could have some real potential,” Schnur said.

He pointed to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who supports the expansion of charter schools and the reduction of public employee pension benefits. To date, Villaraigosa has only said he intends to run for governor.

Political consultant Parke Skelton, whose clients include Villaraigos, said a candidate for the seat would need to raise $20 million to be competitive in the primary.

California media markets are expensive, Skelton said. “It costs $4 million for a week’s worth of TV advertising alone.”

There is a plethora of factors when considering the viability of potential candidates: candidates from Northern verses Southern California; Latino candidates who want to tap into the state’s growing Latino electorate; female candidates who could argue there remains a dearth of women in the U.S. Senate (there are only 20).

Here’s a partial list of possible candidates mentioned by political observers:


One of the big changes since the 1992 election is the collapse of the Republican Party in California.  “The infrastructure has atrophied,” said Jon Fleischman, a vice-chairman of the party and publisher of The Flash Report. “So if you have a candidate now that wants to run, how are they going to raise the tens of millions of dollars to compete?”

Self-funded GOP candidates don’t always win either, he noted. Republican Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her money in a failed run for governor in 2010.

“It would take a transcendent candidate like Arnold Schwarzenegger for a Republican to win. He kind of made it non-partisan when he ran for governor,” Fleishman said.

Nonetheless, a number of Republicans could run, according to Fleischman.

Republicans with the status to try include:

Republicans like Congressman Kevin McCarthy, second in command under House Speaker John Boehner, are unlikely to run, said Schnur.

“He probably doesn’t want to risk his leadership position to take on what would almost certainly be a steep uphill fight for the Senate.”

Newsom and Harris probably have a little more time than other candidates to make a decision, Schnur said.

“Anybody else ought to think about putting a stake in the ground pretty quickly, if only to send a message that they are serious about the race.”