Kamala Harris

Uncertainties abound as state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris emerges as the clear early front-runner in the 2016 election for an open U.S. Senate seat. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

By Michael Finnegan and Patrick McGreevy
February 25, 2015

With Antonio Villaraigosa no longer a threat to her campaign for U.S. Senate, some Democratic leaders see state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris as Barbara Boxer’s inevitable successor.

“I think she is a prohibitive favorite,” said Eric Bauman, the party’s Los Angeles County chairman.

But uncertainties abound as Harris trudges toward the June 2016 primary and, should she finish first or second, the runoff that November. Potential rivals have more than a year to declare their candidacies.

A significant faction of the state Democratic Party is still yearning for another Latino to get in the race, now that Villaraigosa has declined to run.
I think she is a prohibitive favorite. – Eric Bauman, Democratic L.A. County chairman

Several members of Congress, all of whom have more federal policy experience than Harris, are exploring whether to join the race. And as the first major candidate, Harris will face a prolonged period of scrutiny of her record by the media and political adversaries.

Bill Carrick, a longtime campaign advisor to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said it was unlikely that Harris would glide into the Senate without vigorous opposition.

“I think it’s very hard to get a free pass in American politics,” he said. “Politics abhors a vacuum.”

Both Boxer and Feinstein faced fiercely contested Democratic primaries before winning their Senate seats in 1992. The election next year will be California’s first since then with an open Senate seat.

On Tuesday, Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor, became the latest in a string of big-name Democrats to decline to run for Boxer’s seat since the four-term senator announced last month she would not seek reelection.

For Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, early positioning as a presumed front-runner is not entirely an asset, even if it allows her to get a jump on the tedious but crucial task of fundraising.

“She has as much of a lock on this as Hillary Clinton had on the Democratic nomination for president in 2007 and 2008,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino think tank.

Gonzalez said efforts by Harris supporters to clear the field for her “won’t be successful.”

In Napa Valley on Wednesday, Villaraigosa spoke at a private lunch of the California Legislative Latino Caucus, which commissioned a poll last month to gauge voter interest in a Latino candidate for Senate.

Asked whether he hoped another Latino would enter the race, Villaraigosa said, “There’s a lot of talent in this state.

“It’s always good to have a debate of ideas,” he added.

Some Latino lawmakers were openly unenthused by the prospect of Harris facing minimal opposition.

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