SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Within nanoseconds of the ascension this week of Sen. Kamala Harris to the Democratic presidential ticket, her home state of California was already looking to the next question: Who will replace her if she becomes vice president?
If Joe Biden is elected president, Harris’ rise will leave an opening in January for her seat in the U.S. Senate. That pick will be made by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and it stands to be consequential, not only for him but also for his sprawling state and a nation that has long viewed it as a political and cultural bellwether.
“This is a proud moment — historic,” Newsom said Wednesday, speaking of Harris’ nomination and noting their rise together through the crucible of Bay Area politics, “which is not for the timid.” He said the choice of her successor “is not what I’m focused on right now,” given his state’s dismal pandemic situation.
But when asked by a reporter whether would-be candidates had been pitching themselves for the job, Newsom paused for a rueful chuckle.
“You may be the only one who hasn’t, unless you just did — and that is only a slight exaggeration,” he said.
In fact, political strategists say, the choice will be tricky for Newsom, a white man who would be replacing a female senator who is Black and of Indian and Jamaican descent in a heavily Democratic state with no ethnic majority and innumerable factions.
Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a reckoning on racism. But Latinos make up nearly 40% of California’s population of 40 million, and the state’s first Latino senator also would be history-making.
“And women are not going to want to lose one of the few women in the Senate,” added Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist who for 20 years advised the former occupant of Harris’ Senate seat, Barbara Boxer. Newsom also has deep ties to the state’s LGBT community since his time as mayor of San Francisco, and a responsibility to balance power between the state’s north, south, inland and coastal regions.
A generational changing of California’s political guard has produced a deep bench of Democratic leaders with high profiles, robust egos and powerful statewide interests behind them, from big business to public employee unions. Newsom would have no shortage of names to choose from. Almost two dozen were being floated around the state capital even before the announcement that Biden’s running mate would be Harris.
Among them: Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, popular Latinos and Newsom allies who have both won statewide office; U.S. Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Barbara Lee of Oakland, who are Black and who were both considered as potential running mates for Biden.
Also vying for a spot on the list: popular female officeholders such as U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine and state Senate President Toni Atkins; grassroots progressives such as U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna of Silicon Valley, who was a national co-chairman of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign; and chief executives of diverse cities such as Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland and Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach.
“There will obviously be pressure to pick another woman or someone of color,” said David Townsend, a longtime Sacramento Democratic consultant. But he noted that any one choice is likely to disappoint a host of other contenders, no small matter if Newsom ends up facing a primary challenge should he seek reelection.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)That once unthinkable possibility of a primary challenge has lately been considered by many Democrats to be less remote as the Newsom administration has struggled to curb the coronavirus crisis, although Californians largely remain sympathetic to Newsom.
“You know that old saying about what you get when you make a political appointment — 20 angry people and one ingrate,” Townsend said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)In interviews, a few political consultants and elected officials suggested Newsom might want to appoint a caretaker — his predecessor as governor, Jerry Brown, for instance, or even Newsom himself, given his widely assumed national aspirations. Or he might prefer a statewide office holder, whose move also would let Newsom appoint a replacement for the rest of that person’s term in office.
Others underscored the wisdom of picking a candidate with a war chest and name recognition in a state where whoever inherits the seat will have to run for reelection in two years — someone, for example, like Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis who is wealthy and an experienced fundraiser, or U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair from Burbank who led the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and has 2.4 million Twitter followers.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)“It would be an honor to be considered,” said Padilla, an MIT graduate who is a longtime friend and was an early endorser of Newsom. But, he added, his main priority right now as secretary of state is ensuring that “the most consequential election of our lifetime” is “accessible, secure, and safe.”
“Obviously you never rule out anything in politics,” said Khanna. But, he said, he is “happy in my current role” in Congress and “I think we learned from Hillary Clinton in 2016 that measuring the drapes to future jobs before you win is a major error.”
“For the next 83 days, I have one thing on my mind,” Bass told MSNBC on Wednesday. “But after that? We’ll see. I’ll keep all my options open.”
“First let’s elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” Becerra, the state attorney general, said Thursday. “After that, there will be lots of great candidates for Gov. Newsom to consider.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)For California, the pick has far-reaching implications. The state has spent the past four years as a bastion of presidential resistance, filing or joining nearly 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration, and burnishing its reputation as the country’s most liberal state on issues like immigration, climate change and consumer protection. With Harris in the VP role the state would not have to play defense.
And for the short term at least, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 87, remains in office, the potential clout of Feinstein’s seniority, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership position and Harris as an ally in the White House could open a new front for California priorities and ideas.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)The state’s economy is larger than all but a few nation’s, and from water policy to global trade to immigration to health care, its fortunes rise and fall with its ability to sway federal policy and leverage federal dollars.
Should Feinstein step down after this term, the state would lose one of its most influential members in Washington. Even in the Senate minority she has been able to push through legislation of interest to the state, particularly dealing with environmental matters.
As a matter of seniority, Harris never achieved that level of influence, but she has been a formidable fighter, overcoming her relatively short tenure in Washington with a prosecutorial instinct and the occasional viral social media moment.
“Even if Democrats take the White House, Senate and House in November, that doesn’t mean the battles over policy are over,” said Kapolczynski. And, she noted, the Senate is likely to be closely divided after November, and “someone who’s skilled legislatively in that seat could be valuable.”
That, she said, might encourage the governor to choose someone like Bass, who has risen through Congress and, before that, the state Legislature, as a consensus builder, or Becerra, who spent nearly a quarter-century in Congress before 2016, when he was appointed to fill out Harris’ term as California attorney general.
“California has many thoughtful, talented individuals who would make excellent senators,” Feinstein said in a statement. “I have full faith in Gov. Newsom to make an excellent choice to replace Sen. Harris when she’s sworn in as vice president, and I look forward to working with that person closely over the years to come.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)There’s also California’s long history as a political standard-bearer to consider.
“California Democrats have always been the lighthouse of the progressive movement,” said Steve Maviglio, a political consultant. A Democratic appointment to replace Harris, he said, would spotlight the left’s direction, whether toward the young progressive Sanders supporters who dominate the state party or toward the more moderate “get-things-done” vision typically held by Californians who manage to get elected to statewide office.
Or, the calculus could change entirely in five months. “Last I looked this was August of 2020,” the governor said Wednesday, fending off questions about the issue at his daily news conference.
“Remember that if Democrats win in November, politics are going to be dramatically different,” said Karen Skelton, a Democratic strategist based in Sacramento. But that’s still a little ways off, she added. “Right now, everything is about getting rid of Trump and the crisis we’re in.”