Either Kamala Harris or Steve Cooley will hold the state’s highest legal office.
By ALEXANDER BURNS | 11/18/10 4:41 AM EST
With virtually every consequential Senate and gubernatorial election settled and only a few House races still too close to call, the nation’s most important unresolved race may be a down-ballot election in California — a contest for attorney general that will give one party control of a powerful regulatory office that’s also a prime political steppingstone.
The lower-profile campaign pitted San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris — a 46-year-old multiracial Democrat once described as “the female Barack Obama” — against Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican former police reservist best known to national audiences for having called the Robert Blake jury “incredibly stupid.”
Either Harris or Cooley will occupy the highest legal office in the country’s largest state. That’s a big prize, given the national impact that aggressive state attorneys general have had in recent years — most recently, through lawsuits against the Obama administration’s national health care law.
But the political implications of the California race are even deeper: For Democrats, the contest is an opportunity to advance a young candidate viewed as a major political talent. A GOP victory, on the other hand, would avert a Democratic sweep of statewide offices and show that it’s still possible for Republicans to win big races in California.
Harris held a lead of about 31,000 votes at the end of the day Tuesday, according to a Los Angeles Times tally of county-level returns. That lead would be formidable in almost any state except California, where the number of votes that remain uncounted — more than a half-million — is about equal to the total number of ballots cast in Maine this fall.
“Democrats have been able to take every single statewide office. With Kamala Harris winning as attorney general, we will have a complete sweep,” said San Francisco state Sen. Leland Yee. “California then becomes sort of a beacon pushing against the trend in the United States.”
Yee noted that the political implications of the race are more than symbolic: “A lot of times, statewide officers become positioned for other, higher-profile offices.”
National Democrats have made little secret of their interest in Harris. President Obama held a fundraiser for the Northern California prosecutor in late October — a political assist extended to few senators and representatives, let alone state-level candidates. At an Oct. 22 rally in Los Angeles, Obama called Harris “a dear, dear friend,” telling the crowd: “I want everybody to do right by her.”
EMILY’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said people should “start paying attention” to Harris because “she’s a rising star and we hope to see her running for even bigger offices down the road.”
That’s a characterization Harris’s campaign embraces, and campaign consultant Ace Smith told POLITICO that the candidate is “one of the potentially brightest rising stars in the Democratic Party,” though he declined to speculate about her future beyond this election.
Cooley’s long-range political potential is less clear. At 63, he’s 17 years older than Harris (though nine years younger than the outgoing attorney general, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown), and Cooley adviser Kevin Spillane emphasized that the Republican is “a career prosecutor.”
“Kamala Harris, on the other hand, is extremely ambitious,” he said.
Still, after the GOP’s decisive losses in California’s gubernatorial and Senate races this year, Cooley has the potential to be the last Republican standing in an office of serious swat. Like it or not, that would make him an appealing recruit for other races in the future.
And national Republicans have already shown that they’re willing to put resources on the line for Cooley: The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Virginia-based 527 group, spent seven figures on ads criticizing Harris for her decision not to seek the death penalty against a defendant accused of killing a police officer.
That’s a move Cooley’s campaign credits with helping keep the race so close, even as the rest of the Republican ticket sank toward the end of the campaign.
If Cooley wins, said Republican strategist Adam Mendelsohn, “he’ll be No. 1 on the California Republican bench.”
“This will be the guy that rank-and-file Republicans are looking to for leadership over the next year. That will set him up to be looking at governor in four years,” Mendelsohn said.
The fact that the race is this tight, strategists say, is, in large part, thanks to Cooley’s unconventional profile. Cooley has broken with his party to criticize California’s three-strikes rule, which mandates long prison sentences for any criminal convicted of a third felony. Unlike gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina — both wealthy political newcomers who lost by wide margins — Cooley had a long, largely popular record to run on.
Despite his party affiliation, Cooley has a base of support in populous Los Angeles, where he currently trails by just under 300,000 votes, according to the secretary of state’s website. That’s less than half the huge deficit Republicans faced there in the Senate and gubernatorial races.
“He’s someone who has served in public office. He’s someone who had more of a base in that area,” said Chuck Idelson, a spokesman for the Democrat-friendly California Nurses Association. “If you look at Whitman and Fiorina, they were both pretty damaged by their lack of experience, by their lack of record.”
Harris was also open to attack, as a statewide candidate, over her record as an advocate for reforms to incarceration practices and her opposition to the death penalty.
Now, with victory seemingly within reach, Smith touts his candidate’s issue positions as a badge of honor, saying she “had the guts to run on a bunch of very nontraditional issues, … basically, on the belief that there needs to be a fundamental reform of the criminal justice system.”
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