With U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s announcement Thursday that she will retire when her current fourth term ends in early 2017, fellow Democrats are lining up to seek her job.
After all, a Senate seat is a plum job anywhere, but especially for Democrats in California, where it’s been decades since any of them lost a reelection bid for statewide office. Whoever takes Boxer’s place can expect to become the state’s senior senator after 2018, when the then-85-year-old Dianne Feinstein is also widely expected to retire.
But ambitious Democrats should beware: Their eagerness, even greed, could do in their party’s hold on Boxer’s spot. It has happened before in California, and very recently.
The field of potential Democratic candidates for Boxer’s slot is large, possibly going beyond obvious prospects like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, state Treasurer John Chiang, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa. Less obvious might be Silicon Valley moguls like Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg and billionaire hedge fund operator Tom Steyer, of late a financial angel for liberal causes.
Of course, they don’t all have to jump into the run to replace Boxer. Two years later, in 2018, Feinstein’s seat will most likely be available, along with the governor’s office now occupied by Jerry Brown.
Heated competition for all three top jobs is likely. But friends say Newsom and Harris, longtime friends who share a campaign manager, probably won’t run against each other.
They and the rest of the large possible field would be well advised to heed what happened in 2012 in the 31st Congressional District in San Bernardino County, a district where Democrats have a solid voter registration advantage and one where President Obama twice won by healthy margins.
Obama, however, didn’t need to worry about the top two open primary system, where only the two leading primary election finishers make the fall runoff election.
In 2012, four Democrats went after this seat, which had long been held by Republican Gary Miller, who was expected to lose his job after redistricting in 2010 solidified the Democratic margin in his district.
The first complication for the Democrats was extremely low primary election turnout, prompted by the facts that Obama had no primary election challenger and Republican Mitt Romney had sewed up his party’s nomination long before California voted in June.
Almost four times as many people voted in the November runoff that year as in the primary. This and the plethora of Democrats splintering their party’s vote allowed Miller and then state Sen. Bob Dutton to finish first and second in the primary. Democrat Pete Aguilar of Redlands, the preferred candidate of his party’s leaders, finished third with just 23 percent of the vote.
So Democrats had to wait two years before Aguilar managed to win the seat last fall. If at least some Democratic prospects to succeed Boxer don’t stifle their ambitions, precisely the same thing could happen in the Senate primary, even though no Republican has yet expressed interest in running.
One thing for sure: If one and only one Republican makes this race, he or she is almost certain of a runoff slot. And if a slew of Democrats get in against two Republicans, both Republicans could advance to November, guaranteeing the GOP an improbable Senate seat for six years.
Look what happened just last spring, when Pepperdine University Prof. Pete Peterson was the only candidate with a GOP label running in a crowded field for secretary of state. Peterson, perhaps helped along by the federal indictment of San Francisco state Sen. Leland Yee, drew 30 percent of the vote despite being almost a complete unknown.
He then became a tough challenger for eventual winner Alex Padilla, another Democratic state senator at the time of the primary.
So some of the Democratic prospects will have to make an early choice to wait two more years before seeking higher office, or else the party could lose a seat it has held for decades. But the wait could seem endless and frustrating to Democrats, who would have their own hubris to blame if they eventually lose the Boxer seat.