The race begins for Kamala Harris’ Senate seat

Joe Biden’s historic selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate is creating a buzz in California’s Democratic circles where shadow campaigns to replace her in the Senate are already well underway.

Should the pair defeat President Trump and Vice President Pence, California Governor Gavin Newsom will appoint a replacement for Harris to serve the remaining two years of her term. 

Democratic sources in the state tell CBS News that Congressman Adam Schiff, Congresswoman Katie Porter, Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Baragan, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have all made calls to lobby constituencies for the job. 

Others, like Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Representatives Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis consistently come up in conversations as likely replacements.

“Strategically, I think Newsom needs to pick somebody who is politically palatable, somebody who has experience, and somebody who’s a strong campaigner,” said Kate Maeder, former campaign manager for Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis. 

According to interviews with nearly a dozen Democratic strategists, staffers, and state lawmakers, Newsom’s decision will factor in race, gender, as well as his own political future. But some Democrats believe the real contenders, those with the potential to hang on to the seat in the long run, may be limited to a small group who can flex fundraising muscle. 

One veteran California Democratic operative said Porter and Schiff are among the candidates with a chance to win the seat in 2022, even if they aren’t tapped by Newsom.

“In the next three months, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, if they know they really want to run for Senate but no one’s looking at them, they’re gonna go freakin’ nuts and put all this extra money in their re-elect,” the veteran Democratic operative said.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Porter went from roughly $83,000 cash on hand at the beginning of 2019 when she was sworn into office, to more than $6.7 million at the end of June. Schiff has also stepped up the fundraising efforts, going from about $2 million cash on hand at the end of 2016 to more than $10 million as of June 2020. 

“You don’t want to put somebody up and then they’re not able to win the seat outright” in 2022, said Danielle Cendejas, a political strategist who’s worked on several campaigns in the last decade. “You want to make sure that somebody has already got a statewide apparatus and has the ability to raise money so that they can stand for reelection in a state that is incredibly expensive to run in,” Cendejas added.

The last time a California governor got to appoint a senator was in January 1991, when Pete Wilson picked John Seymour to serve in the seat that Wilson himself had vacated when he became governor.

But Seymour didn’t last long in the Senate. The next year a former mayor of San Francisco named Dianne Feinstein beat him. In 1992, dubbed “Year of the Woman,” Feinstein, along with former Senator Barbara Boxer, made California the first state in the nation to be represented by two female senators. 

For nearly three decades, California’s Senate seats have been held by women.

“That might not be a tradition that (Newsom) is going to want to break with,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., one of the largest election data firms in the state. 

Many Democrats here say Newsom will also be under pressure to replace Harris — only the second Black woman in U.S. history to serve in the Senate — with another Black woman. There will also be calls to pick a Latino or Latina, since California has never had a Hispanic senator, despite the fact that the demographic makes up nearly 40% of the state’s population. 

“There is going to be pressure from these groups to have the person who is appointed be representative of the state and its diversity,” Mitchell said, referring the current lack of diversity in the Senate. 

Newsom faces a difficult decision, one that could affect Democratic Party morale and potentially anger certain parts of the Democratic base while he’s dealing with a pandemic and facing his own re-election campaign in 2022.

“If he lets the women’s group, the Bernie progressives, the Latino faction or caucus, the Black caucus that says you have to name a Black woman, if he lets all those fester, he is asking for trouble,” the veteran California operative said. The source added that Newsom’s best bet is to privately call the different groups and make his preferences clear now. 

But the governor recently indicated he hasn’t thought about the decision — and won’t until January of 2021 because he’s focused on the state’s response to COVID-19.

“He feels like it is not appropriate, you shouldn’t be getting ahead of the November’s election, and we should be focused on getting Biden elected. And everything about that is correct. It’s so correct that he’s going to allow these folks to run shadow campaigns,” the veteran California operative said.

Cendejas said Newsom’s decision will say something about what he values in the pick — whether he is looking for an effective legislator in Washington “or making history here in California.” 

The choice could affect California politics and Newsom’s own legacy as a governor, especially if he appoints a current statewide office holder like Padilla or Becerra.

Becerra, once one of the top Democrats in Congress, was appointed to his role as the state’s attorney general in 2007 to replace Harris. Meanwhile, Padilla was an early supporter of Newsom’s run for governor and has become a leading voice on voting rights while strongly advocating for vote-by-mail policies. 

If Newsom appoints Padilla or Becerra, it would give him the chance to fill another vacant seat. In contrast, appointing somebody from California’s congressional delegation would trigger a special election and give voters a voice in the matter.

“It would be like a minor earthquake that would then cause aftershocks here and there,” Cendejas said. “It’s historic and it is not something that happens quite often,” she added.

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