Sen. Barbara Boxer's Retirement Gives California a Real Political Race

Election '16

California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s announcement that she will not seek re-election in 2016 has not just set off a scramble among likely Democratic and Republican candidates, it has given Californians something they haven’t seen in a long time: a real political race with nationwide implications.

The Golden State is typically where national candidates come to raise money to spend elsewhere, especially in presidential years when the battleground states never include the reliably blue West coast.

But Boxer’s retirement, after three decades as a congresswoman from Marin County and then a senator known for progressive advocacy, especially on women’s issues and the environment, raises the question of what kind of Californian might succeed her.

The Sacramento Bee, the state’s capital city paper, listed more than a dozen possible contenders. Top Democrats include state’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and even billionaire Tom Steyer, the hedge fund chief turned climate change activist. On the GOP side, there’s two standouts: Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who badly lost to Boxer in 2010, and ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who the Bee called the GOP’s “dream candidate.”    

The conventional wisdom outside of California is this will remain a Democratic seat because Republicans are an ever-shrinking minority of the state’s voters. Yet that is not a foregone conclusion for reasons that are not fully appreciated outside of the state, namely, that California has a new primary system where voters in the fall choose between the top two vote getters in the spring—regardless of party. That reform, adopted in 2010, could boost Republicans if the Democratic primary was crowded.

Another factor that will come into play is how unbelievably expensive any candidacy will be. Candidates will each need to raise multi-millions to pay for local and statewide advertising, as the state is too big for candidates to make personal appearances reaching voters.

All candidates will face these factors, regardless of their ideological stripes. But then the question of what kind of senator California will elect gets intriguing. The attorney general, Kamala Harris, has built a reputation going after big banks that caused the housing market crash. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome was one of leading proponents of same-sex marriages before the federal courts started overturning state-based bans on the unions. Villaraigosa was Assembly speaker and L.A. mayor at a time when there were not many Latinos in top positions in state government. And Steyer, who spent tens of millions in 2014 to try to elect pro-environment candidates to Congress, puts climate change front and center.

On the Republican side, Rice arguably is best-known, because she was George W. Bush’s Secretary of State and played a key role in launching the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. It’s hard to guage whether that would be a major liability as the U.S. under President Obama is still mired in conflicts in the region.

No matter what unfolds, Californians will find themselves in the rare position of having a nationally important race where their votes matter and aren’t taken for granted—as is always the case in presidential elections.  

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