The Riggs Report: California’s Senate scramble

AG Kamala Harris declares her candidacy this week

Flash! California Attorney General Kamala Harris declared her candidacy this week for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer. Many political observers see her as the front-runner, although as the only official candidate thus far, doesn’t that follow by default?

Harris, who announced her intentions via social media only a day after Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom publicized his decision not to seek Boxer’s seat, is a formidable candidate. That’s clear. She has two statewide wins under her belt. She has a great story to tell about her role in negotiating an enormous settlement with the nation’s banks over the mortgage crisis that left so many homeowners underwater.

Harris is relatively young, charismatic, and has appeal for women and minority voters.

Harris’s early entry into the race also gives her a head start on the arduous task of raising the many millions of dollars needed to fund a campaign like this.

But Harris won’t have the stage to herself for long. Boxer’s announcement last week, 17 months before the primary, was intended to give potential candidates plenty of lead time to make a go-no go decision.

It has set in motion a frenzy of interest. After all, it’s been almost a quarter-century since there was an open Senate seat in California; an opportunity that politicians wait a lifetime for.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ex-Assembly Speaker, has indicated he’s interested in taking a look at the race. He has shown interest in the past in the governorship, but may have concluded that waiting until 2018 is too long, especially since he’s been out of the mayor’s office for two years.

Other Democrats who are expected to take a serious look include Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, Rep. John Garamendi of Sacramento County, and Rep. Jackie Speier of San Mateo County.

Remember, too, that any of California’s statewide officeholders could seek the Boxer seat without having to give up their current office; what is termed a “free ride.” That includes not just Harris, but elected leaders like Treasurer John Chiang or Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Republican prospects include Assemblymember Rocky Chavez of San Diego County and former state party chairman Duf Sundheim.

And then there is billionaire Tom Steyer.

A Democrat and environmental activist who made his fortune running a hedge fund in San Francisco, Steyer floated the idea of his candidacy this week in a blog in the Huffington Post. Steyer has never held office, but that has never stopped wealthy candidates before, even though they have a history of flaming out with voters.

Democrat Al Checchi, who was chairman of Northwest Airlines, spent $40 million of his own money in a losing bid for governor in 1998. There are plenty of more recent Republican examples—businessman Bill Simon’s 2002 run for governor. Or Carly Fiorina’s 2010 race for Senate. And the best known—Meg Whitman’s 2010 campaign for governor, during which she spent a whopping $140 million of her own money.

If Steyer jumps in, it ups the ante considerably. He spent $73 million in 2014 to support candidates in congressional and governor’s races across the country. With that kind of financial firepower, the 2016 Senate race could be a record-breaker for spending.

Harris is in the spotlight for now, but she’ll have plenty of company soon enough.