When Barbara Boxer announced her retirement from the Senate on Jan. 8, political reporters nationwide prepared for an “epic political battle.” After all, Boxer and her Senate counterpart Dianne Feinstein have both served since 1992, and a new generation of ambitious Democratic politicians has long awaited the chance to move up. In a deep-blue state, an open-seat race could mirror the internal battle of ideas in the national Democratic Party, energizing the rank and file with a vigorous debate on the issues.
But just a few weeks later, only one major candidate, Attorney General Kamala Harris, has announced her intention to run, with several potential rivals declining and others hesitating. “You would think it would be more robust,” said Joe Matthews, a journalist and co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” “After 24 years in a state with a lot of smart people and ideas, this should be a moment. But it doesn’t appear we’ll get there.”
Candidates have over a year to file, to be sure, and most observers expect some kind of contested campaign. But why has this coveted Senate seat not yet yielded the expected crush of political strivers eager to gain support?
The answer may be found in California itself, where many of the worst features of the U.S. political system are on full display. A massive money chase, an unpredictable electoral process and a political culture dominated by a narrow band of elites all conspire to make the primary before the primary arguably more important than the choice offered to the voters next year.
All potential candidates in California must contend with running in a virtual nation-state of 38 million people, with vastly diverse regions and a narrowing set of options to transmit their message. “Because of media cutbacks, there’s less coverage of state politics all the time,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s tough for a candidate to break through.”
It’s impossible to shake hands with the millions of voters necessary to increase name recognition, so with so much else competing for the public’s attention, candidates need massive sums of money for expensive advertising. “One of the potential candidates asked me what it would cost to run,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime political strategist and attorney. “I said $50 million. And they said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Not many politicians who aren’t already president or a national political celebrity like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren can amass such a fortune. U.S. House members or mayors without a statewide profile don’t have a deep-enough donor network to draw from. Elected officials not tied into the San Francisco Bay Area, the heart of Democratic politics in the state, begin at a serious disadvantage. Long-shot candidates without personal wealth have no hope, especially because the media won’t cover anyone they don’t consider viable. “There are not going to be any Barack Obamas in California politics,” said Joe Matthews, referring to the then–Illinois senator’s out-of-nowhere trajectory in the 2008 presidential race.
This gives a very narrow political class enormous power to dictate events. Issues take a backseat to winning elite support, which constrains the issues that statewide candidates can talk about. The concerns of the wealthy dominate, since they are the primary funders of elections. And the priorities of Democratic voters, particularly regarding higher taxes for the wealthy and crackdowns on the financial industry, may not align with the priorities of Democratic donors.
“The outcome is not dependent at all on what voters want,” said Sragow, “but what insiders think — party activists and contributors — and what career paths these politicians want.” With other important seats soon to come open (Gov. Jerry Brown is term-limited out in 2018, and Feinstein, who is 81, may retire in 2018) the next generation of political talent in California can try to sidestep one another and find an easier race.
Another complicating factor is the state’s “jungle” primary. Instead of separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans, all candidates are listed on the same ballot in the primary in June, with the top two vote getters advancing to the general election.
This raises the possibility of two Democrats getting to November, a much more expensive proposition than a heavily favored Democrat against a Republican. Or two Republicans could sneak into the general election if a multitude of Democrats enter and cancel out one another. This almost happened in the state controller’s race in 2014, heightening anxiety among Democrats and leading to temptations to limit competition. “A person can be accused of spoiling the thing for their party, and that’s nuts,” said Matthews.
Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, jumped into the race a day after her Bay Area colleague Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wouldn’t run. This allowed her to raise money early and build endorsements (she has already nabbed the support of Elizabeth Warren). And she has locked up the services of Ace Smith, a top political consultant who also works with Newsom.
Though Harris barely won her first statewide election, potential opponents have opted out. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, state Treasurer John Chiang, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, Karen Bass and several others have passed on the race. Other aspirants, including Reps. Adam Schiff, Xavier Becerra and Loretta Sanchez, have expressed interest but are staying out for now. They are likely waiting for Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor, to make up his mind, which should happen in the next week.
Villaraigosa is seen as more corporate-friendly than Harris, and through his support for education reform, more tied into a well-heeled donor network and high-end consultants. This drives the perception that only he can commit a viable challenge at this point. “It seems that the only person who could have a chance at taking on Harris is Villaraigosa,” said political scientist Jack Pitney.
This is perhaps why supporters of Harris have, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, tried to nudge Villaraigosa out. Herb Wesson — a former Villaraigosa ally on the Los Angeles City Council — have endorsed Harris, stressing her historic appeal as California’s first African-American senator (Villaraigosa would present his own historic narrative as the state’s first Latino senator). The White House made Harris a spokesman on the president’s immigration policy. And Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor who also spent 15 years as speaker of the California Assembly, openly asked Villaraigosa to decline a run, arguing that his loyalty to Harris “should be so valuable and he should … see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that.” (Brown earlier suggested in his newspaper column that Villaraigosa and Harris were spotted having dinner together, potentially cutting a deal.)
Brown was perhaps a little too direct, drawing criticism from The Sacramento Bee, and Hispanic leaders questioned why their man was being snubbed, threatening to drown the campaign in a morass of identity politics. Garry South, a Democratic political consultant, raged on Twitter that the “pressure campaign to keep Villaraigosa out … is ham-handed and unseemly. This isn’t Saudi Arabia, where we appoint the next king.”
Harris campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw dismissed the controversy, arguing that the attorney general “entered the race because she wants to be a voice for Californians in Washington and to build on the transformational legacies of Sens. Boxer and Feinstein. That is her focus, not on other candidates who may or may not enter the race.”
But Brown merely said out loud what is clearly taking place behind the scenes: a jockeying for position that has intimidated practically every major politician in the state. “I wouldn’t look at Kamala Harris in a vacuum and say that’s a person that should scare people out of the race,” Matthews said. “Her backers are scarier to people than her. That dynamic of elite backing being really important is a bit troubling.”
Harris consultant Ace Smith used to work for Villaraigosa and “was a factor in Steyer not running,” according to Matthews. Only a handful of Democratic consultants have successfully navigated statewide races, magnifying their importance. “California is a big state with a surprisingly small political class,” said Jack Pitney.
California has a history of victorious long-shot candidates, from Sen. S.I. Hayakawa to reformist Gov. Hiram Johnson. But the system may not allow for such surprises anymore or even legitimate primary campaigns with a robust debate. Various factors winnow the field before any voter casts a ballot. Californians who tune in at the end of the campaign expecting a competition may see a coronation instead.