As one race ends, another begins. In California, roughly a dozen candidates—some publicly, some privately—are reportedly angling to take over the U.S. Senate soon to be vacated by Kamala Harris, the new vice president-elect.It will not be an easy decision for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in part because of the historical significance of Harris’s seat. Harris, the first Black woman to be elected to national office in the United States, is the only Black woman and one of only three Black senators overall in the current U.S. Senate. (The two others are Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott of South Carolina.) It’s hard not to imagine that will be one key consideration in Newsom’s decision.But there is another factor at play. As a state, California is 39% Latino and there has never been a Latino Senator elected from California. There will undoubtedly be political pressure on Newsom to address that issue, especially as he nears his own re-election campaign in 2022.Another decision Newsom has to make is whether to appoint a caretaker in the seat, or whether to appoint someone who plans to run in 2022 and thus would be able to do so as an incumbent. When president-elect Joe Biden became vice president under Barack Obama in 2009, Edward Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide, was named to fill his Senate seat, announcing at the time that he did not intend to run for re-election when the Delaware seat came up in 2010. (A local Delaware official, Chris Coons, entered and won that race.)
“There’s no shortage of ambition here,’’ the Democratic strategist Brian Goldsmith recently told Politico. “There’s three dozen plausible potential senators—and there’s only one spot. These seats don’t come around often, and once filled, they can be filled for decades. So everybody’s trying to do their own version of smart campaigning.”
Here is a look at the top contenders right now.
Karen Bass: Bass, a five-term Congresswoman and the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was on the shortlist when Joe Biden was looking for a running mate this summer. A close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the daughter of a postal worker and a stay-at-home mother, Bass, 66, became the first Black woman to lead the California Assembly in 2008, a post she held before being elected to Congress. She has also proven that she can work across political aisles, an increasingly rare skill these past three years but one that Biden might need if the Senate remains under Republican control. Before entering politics, Bass worked as an emergency room physician assistant and was a community organizer during the Los Angeles riots of the 1990s, a harbinger of the protests that followed the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings this summer.
Katie Porter: The 46-year-old Congresswoman from Orange County rose to national celebrity in her first term in the House of Representatives, largely for her grilling of government officials over their bungled response to the coronavirus epidemic and of Big Pharma executives over their predatory pricing, wielding her now-famous whiteboard like a devastatingly effective truncheon. Porter, a former law professor and a single mother with three young children, is a favorite of progressives, and would make an exciting presence in the Senate (where she would join one of her former Harvard professors, Elizabeth Warren). But she won election in 2018 (and then re-election this year) in a district that has voted heavily Republican in the past and there are fears among Democrats that a special election there might flip the seat back to the GOP and further diminish their narrow majority in the House.
There’s literally nothing more satisfying than watching pharma execs squirm when Katie Porter brings out the white board.pic.twitter.com/1tksM3EAi5
— Brian Tyler Cohen (@briantylercohen) September 30, 2020
Alex Padilla: If Newsom decides to make history by appointing California’s first Latino U.S. senator, Secretary of State Alex Padilla is seen as perhaps the most likely choice. A former state senator, the 47-year-old Padilla is a close ally of Newsom’s and chaired the former San Francisco mayor’s first run at the governorship in 2010. Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, also has ties to the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, having worked as an intern in her office before going on to win, at age 26, a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. Two years later, he became the youngest person ever elected president of the council. Recently, two influential lobbying groups, Latino Victory and BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, issued statements urging Newson to appoint Padilla to Harris’s seat.
Xavier Becerra. When Becerra was named California’s Attorney General, following the 2016 election of Harris to the U.S. Senate, he became the first Latino to hold that post in the state’s history. Like Padilla, Becerra is the son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to graduate from college. He previously served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was the first Latino to serve as a member of the Committee on Ways and Means. As Attorney General, Becerra has been a frequent adversary of the Trump administration, suing the federal government more than 100 times since taking office. Two weeks ago, Becerra’s legal team led arguments before the Supreme Court in defense of the Affordable Care Act, which is being challenged by roughly a dozen attorneys general from Republican-led states. On MSNBC last week, when Becerra was asked whether he was interested in the Senate seat, he replied “That is certainly an offer I could not refuse,” but said he had not yet talked to Newsom about the opening.
Barbara Lee: A longtime symbol of the progressive community, going back 2001, when hers was the lone vote in the House against authorization of use of force in the Iraq War, Lee, a 12-term Congresswoman from the Bay Area continues to be known for her activism on such issues as poverty, affordable healthcare, and AIDS. At 73, though, Lee might be seen as more a caretaker in the job, one that honors her previous achievements while likely opening the race to a flood of contenders in 2022.
London Breed: The 45-year-old San Francisco mayor, who grew up in the city’s public housing, was widely praised this spring for her administration’s aggressive and largely effective response to COVID-19, with San Francisco being one of the first cities to shut down and impose tight restrictions. In 2018, Breed became the first Black woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco, and was quickly anointed as a rising star in California’s political world. More recently, she has been praised for her ambitious plans for police reform, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed national debate on race. Breed is also known as a protégé of Kamala Harris and was among the first to congratulate the vice president-elect when the networks finally called the election. “The pride I feel as a black woman is hard to put into words,” Breed said in announcement shortly after the race was called. “Kamala Harris is a friend and mentor, but most importantly, she is an inspiration to so many of us all across this country.”
Robert Garcia: Another Latino contender, although perhaps a longer shot than either Padilla or Becerra, is Garcia, the popular, two-term mayor of Long Beach whose national profile was raised this summer when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. If chosen, Garcia, 42, who came to this country at the age of five from his native Peru, would be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate, and one with a tragic and resonant personal story: Both of his parents died of coronavirus this year.
Adam Schiff: There was perhaps no more skillful combatant of Donald Trump over the past four years than 10-term California congressman Schiff—or “shifty Schiff” as the increasingly nettled president nicknamed him. As chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies, Schiff led the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties and the Trump administration’s dealings with the new Ukrainian president in pursuit of a bogus investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. He also led the skillful, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to impeach and then convict Trump over his actions in Ukraine. Though Schiff, 60, is seen as a strong contender for a future Senate run (Dianne Feinstein is now 87), it seems likely that Newsom will go for a more diverse candidate to replace Harris. As Nathan Ballard, one of Newsom’s closest advisers recently told ABC News, “It goes without saying it’s highly unlikely that this particular appointment will be a straight, white male.”