Kamala Harris+Gavin Newsom

By Josh Richman
jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com
Posted: 02/22/2015 10:16:32 AM PST
Updated: 02/22/2015 10:16:40 AM PST

Getting an early start is important for birds seeking worms and children hoping to get in a top college. But when it comes to prominent politicians angling for higher office, starting years in advance may simply allow more time for troubles to mount, political experts say.

So what the heck are Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom thinking?

Harris, California’s attorney general, seems to be seeking an air of inevitability by starting her 2016 U.S. Senate campaign in the first two weeks of 2015, just five days after Barbara Boxer announced she wouldn’t run again. Likewise, Lt. Gov. Newsom — by launching his campaign for governor three years, three months and 25 days before 2018’s primary — wants to be seen as the man to beat.

Getting in early can demonstrate your commitment, give you a jump on fundraising and perhaps scare off some rivals. But it also can give voters more time to grow tired of you, give rivals more time to dig up dirt, and give you more time and a spotlight in which to stumble.

“The inevitability curse makes some candidates very nervous,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political expert at the University of Southern California.

Veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow agreed.

“I would have strongly urged them to keep their powder dry,” he said. “The minute you declare, you have a target on your back. Sometimes you wind up being hit by potential opponents and sometimes you shoot yourself.”

Starting early also can make you seem like old hat long before any ballots are cast, said Sragow, who has managed three California campaigns for governor and two for U.S. Senate.

“What the voters are looking for today might not be what the voters are looking for next month, much less three and a half years from today,” he said.

Consider Hillary Clinton: Many pundits in early 2007 thought her household name as a U.S. senator and former first lady, plus her formidable fundraising ability, made her a shoo-in for 2008’s Democratic presidential nomination.

Then a politically gifted newcomer popped up with a better-organized campaign and a hope-and-change message for a war-weary nation headed into a deep recession.

Clinton sounded like a Beltway veteran, while voters wanted new energy. So Barack Obama clinched it.

It’s no surprise, then, that Clinton is taking her sweet time about entering next year’s race — even if most people already assume she’s running.

Getting in so early means having voters view everything you do and say through the lens of your candidacy, Jeffe said.

“It allows Harris to use the bully pulpit of her office to gain media coverage by doing her job, but the question then becomes whether she’ll be nailed for using her office that way,” she said.

Harris last week finessed one decision after finding herself in a crossfire between two unions that have contributed to her past campaigns, as she tried to decide whether to approve the Los Altos Hills-based Daughters of Charity Health System’s proposed sale of six hospitals to Prime Healthcare. The California Nurses Association, which has a labor deal with Ontario-based Prime, supported the deal. The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which wanted the hospitals sold to a New York-based private equity firm, opposed it.

Harris managed to draw cautious praise from both sides Friday by approving the sale but imposing strict conditions that she said would protect communities’ access to health care.

A Field Poll also brought Harris some good news last week: The only potential candidate whom Californians like better is former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — and she has no plans to run.

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