Antonio Villaraigosa

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, shown in Sacramento in 2013, is weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

By Michael Finnegan
January 22, 2015

With billionaire Tom Steyer opting out of California’s U.S. Senate race on Thursday, the most likely major rival for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris appears to be former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

For now, Harris is the lone major contender for the Senate seat that Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer plans to vacate next year. But Villaraigosa, who was spending Thursday in Washington, has been working hard behind the scenes to lay groundwork to run against Harris.

Villaraigosa, who left office as mayor in 2013, might still opt to run instead for governor in 2018 — or to abandon his plan to try to return to elected office.

But if he enters the Senate race, as many close to him expect, it will set up a campaign clash between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Harris was district attorney from 2004 to 2010.

A key question is whether Villaraigosa could mobilize broad enough support in Southern California to offset the wide backing that Harris expects in the Bay Area, a bastion of liberal Democrats.

Villaraigosa’s election in 2005 as the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles symbolized the ascendancy of Latinos as a major political force in California. If he captured Boxer’s seat, Villaraigosa would be California’s first Latino in the Senate.

The higher turnout of Latino voters in a presidential election year, compared with midterm years, would be an important advantage for Villaraigosa in the Senate primary, but it would not necessarily be decisive.

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