It’s now a certainty that Kamala Harris will have an opponent on the November 2016 ballot. But much less certain is whether that opponent will be any more threatening that Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist who placed second in California’s 2012 Senate primary election, was to incumbent Dianne Feinstein.
For one by one, potentially formidable opponents to the election of Harris, now the state attorney general and previously district attorney of San Francisco, have fallen by the wayside since early January.
Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer took himself out early. So did state Treasurer John Chiang, followed by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who opted instead to run for governor in 2018. Then former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took herself out, possibly because she would have had to face questions about her role in deceptions that led to the war in Iraq. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin also nixed a run.
Any one of those four fellow Democrats and two Republicans could have posed a threat for Harris’ bid to replace the retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Harris doesn’t look particularly intimidating, but she got to work very quickly on the Senate race, declaring for the job almost immediately after Boxer announced her impending retirement.
Before anyone else had done much of anything, she staged high-profile fund-raisers in Bel Air, Long Beach, San Francisco and Washington D.C. At the same time, she quickly got endorsements from dozens of prominent Democrats. Harris, who handily won reelection as attorney general last fall before starting this run, also was helped when her investigators raided the home of the disgraced Michael Peevey, former head of the state Public Utilities Commission.
Investigating Peevey, who drew praise from Gov. Jerry Brown and other major Democrats even as his alleged corruption became more and more evident, has made Harris seem politically independent and a tough backer of consumer interests.
Put all this together and she’s a pretty intimidating candidate.
Yes, there’s still the possibility of someone else substantial getting in against Harris, whose name was recognized by only 40 percent of likely voters in one late-winter poll. But so far, the only declared opponent is Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of San Diego County.
Several Democratic congressional veterans, realizing that gerrymandering in other states has made it very difficult for their party to regain control of the House of Representatives, also might risk making this run.
While Harris’ early entrance, bully pulpit as attorney general and her early endorsements strengthen her, she lacks the huge war chest used so often by senatorial candidates like Feinstein, Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson to scare off significant opposition. Newsom, who quickly raised $800,000 this winter to run for governor atop the $3 million left in his campaign kitty after last year’s run for reelection, will plainly try to employ financial intimidation against all but billionaires when his campaign gets serious two years from now.
But Harris didn’t have that kind of money before she began raising new funds and has not made a formal financial report. She had just $1.3 million in her campaign account when her reelection run ended last fall, and it’s unclear how much of that is transferable to a federal campaign.
By contrast, Burbank Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff had $2.1 million in his war chest at last report, and all of it could be used for a Senate run if he opts for that over reelection. Schiff has also said he thinks it’s time a credible Southern California candidate challenged the state’s San Francisco-based Democratic power elite, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Newsom, Harris, party chairman John Burton and Gov. Jerry Brown, with his base across the Bay in nearby Oakland.
Villaraigosa, with strong appeal among Latino voters, had appeared poised to be that kind of candidate before pulling out. Another Latino might yet emerge as a Harris challenger, with Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra of East Los Angeles, part of the House Democratic leadership, still possibilities.
But right now Harris dominates this race, in part because she got in early and acted fast. Unless someone else acts soon, it figures to be more coronation than contest.