02/09/2015 – 11:44 PM

WASHINGTON — A rare open contest for a U.S. Senate seat in California next year presents a long-awaited opportunity for some of the state’s more politically ambitious House members.

But for them, the opening also requires a tremendous wager: Democrats who take a chance on the post Sen. Barbara Boxer is leaving have to risk safe House seats they would be likely to retain for years to come.

Only a few House members have the name recognition and star power needed to run in such a geographically and demographically diverse state, with some of the country’s most expensive media markets.

Still, some lawmakers could be formidable competitors, depending on the field of candidates, some political observers say.

At least four House Democrats told McClatchy that they’re seriously thinking about running to succeed Boxer, a Democrat who served five terms in the House and will have completed 24 years in the Senate by the end of next year. They are Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove.

Republicans are viewed at this point as underdogs, given their difficulties winning statewide races, particularly in a presidential year, when the higher turnout favors Democrats.

“I think they’re all plausible, viable candidates,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who worked for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is the only official candidate so far. Environmental activist and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer withdrew his name from consideration, while former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to make his intentions official.

The presence of high-profile candidates in the race, such as Harris and Villaraigosa, could put House members at a major disadvantage, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“They’re starting out with a tremendous leg up compared to a House member from any of these districts,” she said. “It’s an uneven playing field.”

Next year’s Senate race is widely expected to break records for campaign spending, and House members considering a run know that’s a high bar.

“It’s an uphill battle for anyone in the House to run,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat who succeeded her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui. He served in the House for more than two decades and considered a Senate run in 1992 but ultimately declined.

Bill Carrick, a veteran political strategist who’s worked for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others, said a serious contender would need to raise $20 million or more. “It’s going to take a lot of dough,” he said.

That’s true for anyone seeking a Senate seat from California. Harris will be under pressure to meet the high expectations that come with being the early favorite, Stutzman said. “She better raise more money than those sitting members of Congress,” he said.

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