Why California Members May Think Twice About Running for Senate
More than a half-dozen House Democrats are considering a bid for California’s first open Senate seat in more than two decades — and unlike in most other states, none would start as a front-runner.
Sen. Barbara Boxer’s retirement has given ambitious but stifled Democrats an avenue to higher office, and it’s part of a significant changing of the guard among the party’s leaders in the state. State Attorney General Kamala Harris entered the race Tuesday, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire Tom Steyer expected to announce their decisions within days.
Reps. Xavier Becerra, Karen Bass, John Garamendi, Raul Ruiz, Loretta Sanchez, Jackie Speier and Eric Swalwell are also mulling bids. But while members are generally top-tier Senate recruits thanks to past electoral success and a built-in donor base, the Golden State’s crop of potential contenders face inherent disadvantages not seen in nearly any other state.
First, there’s the sheer cost of running a statewide campaign in the most populous state in the country.
Democrats estimate the race could easily cost in the nine figures, especially since the top-two primary could push two Democrats into the general election. The escalated price tag comes with having four large media markets — Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, which all rank among the top 30 markets in the country.
“Here’s the issue — it’s a race that’s going to cost $100 million,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the California Democratic delegation, whom Democrats do not expect to run.
In California, where direct mail is a primary communication tool, few House members opt to spend precious resources on broadcast TV for their congressional campaigns. That would likely have to change for a statewide race.
Perhaps an even bigger challenge for California House members is geography. No members of Congress represent a smaller percentage of their state’s population than those from California, which has a delegation of 53.
Boxer was the last House member to win a Senate seat in California. She was elected in 1992 along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who won a special election in what came to be known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Boxer’s victory made her one of just four Golden State House members in the past 100 years to be elected to the Senate, a list that includes President Richard M. Nixon.
Swalwell, now in his second term representing the East Bay after defeating an incumbent Democrat, told CQ Roll Call he is drawn by the opportunity to serve more people and is considering the race. But he noted running statewide in California is a challenge for candidates at any level of the political hierarchy.
“California, being the biggest state, certainly poses a challenge for anyone running for the U.S. Senate. … It’s a daunting task no matter who you are,” Swalwell said. “It’s a big state, it has a deep talent pool, and it’s extremely expensive to communicate to voters.”
Becerra, an ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian, knows a quick decision may be necessary for this competitive and expensive race.
“I’d like to be able to get this to crystallize more in the next few weeks, because there’s a lot of work that has to get done,” Becerra told CQ Roll Call after a contentious House vote Wednesday on immigration amendments attached to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill. “This is all about being competitive and having enough money to be competitive as well. So I’ve seen this game, I’ve watched it, and I intend — if I decide to run — to play to win.”
Bass, who said she’s been approached to run but is currently focused on her role in the House, echoed the concerns over the cost of a statewide race in California.
“It’s going to be difficult for anybody in California because California is so big and the races are so expensive — $50 to $100 million,” Bass said during votes. “And then if one of California’s billionaires jump in, then the sky’s the limit as to how much it could cost.”
Sanchez, who has been open about her higher ambitions, said she is less concerned about the possible disadvantages.
“That would typically be the case,” Sanchez said about House members’ challenges at statewide office in her state. “But Kamala Harris doesn’t have any federal experience. … I’ve gone and campaigned for many people up and down the state for 18 years, so you know I think I’m a different type of an animal.”
Eight House members were elected to the Senate last cycle. That brings the total number of senators in the 114th Congress who previously served in the House to 53, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis.
But just one of those is from California.
In 1992, Boxer defeated Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and fellow Rep. Mel Levine with a 44 percent take in the Democratic primary. She went on to win the general with just 48 percent of the vote.
Jerry Brown, then a former governor, would undoubtedly have been the favorite for the seat, but he opted to run for president instead. No matter who else runs this year, members of Congress considering the race know they will definitely have to contend with Harris, who has two statewide victories under her belt and whose candidacy the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee touted just minutes after her announcement Tuesday.
“Running a statewide race in California at the top of the ticket — for governor or senator — is an entirely different experience than any other political experience you can have,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime consultant to Feinstein. “The amount of money you have to raise, that’s something none of these candidates have done.”
This race is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
Amanda Allen contributed to this report.