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Harris Opens Bid For Boxer's Senate Seat, But Others May Follow


A lot of Californians weren't even born the last time a new senator was elected, but that's about to change. California Senator Barbara Boxer's decision last week to not seek a fifth term set off a scramble among possible successors in what will be the state's first wide-open Senate race in nearly a quarter-century. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it's widely assumed that another Democrat will win in this deeply blue state. And the first person to enter the race already looks like a front-runner.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: California Attorney General Kamala Harris is a young, charismatic and savvy political player. She announced her bid to succeed Boxer in a low-key, online appeal to supporters, writing on her website, I'll be a fighter for the next generation on the critical issues facing our country. As a two-time, statewide office winner, Harris will be a tough candidate to beat, says USC's Dan Schnur.

DAN SCHNUR: As attorney general, she's broadened the focus of the office considerably beyond the traditional crime and public safety measures. And, particularly, she took on a national leadership role on the issue of mortgage relief.

GONZALES: Three years ago, Harris forged an $18-billion settlement with big banks accused of unfair home foreclosures. On top of that, Harris is California's first female, first African-American and first Asian-American state attorney general. Corey Cook teaches politics at the University of San Francisco.

COREY COOK: Kamala Harris is the most well-known. She's obviously won statewide. She has very high approval ratings in California. But if it becomes a multiple candidate field, it becomes much more difficult to handicap.

GONZALES: For example, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he's seriously considering a run. He has high name-recognition in vote-rich Southern California, but he also has personal baggage after admitting to marital infidelity. Still, if he runs, Villaraigosa would be California's first Latino Senate candidate. And 2016, a presidential year, could be a good year for him, says Mindy Romero, a political sociologist at UC Davis.

MINDY ROMERO: Those historic conditions could then bring out many more Latinos. Turnout could be much higher. That would also, therefore, impact other races - local races, congressional races. And so 2016 might have advantages for him in that sense.

GONZALES: Together, Villaraigosa and Harris cover two main voter constituencies for California Democrats - Latinos and women. Whoever runs will need about $20 million just for the primary and tens of millions more for the general election. That leads to talk about a self-financed candidate, such as billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer. He's backed candidates in the past and is reportedly weighing his own campaign.

On the Republican side, there's less optimism since there are no GOP statewide officeholders. And fewer than 30 percent of California voters are registered Republicans. Congressman Darrell Issa would bring name recognition and his own wealth to the table. Another party favorite is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. USC's Dan Schnur says a Republican candidate could benefit from a crowded Democratic field.

SCHNUR: Under the rules of the top-two primary, so many Democrats run that they split each other's vote and a Republican manages to slide through.

GONZALES: And under California's top-two primary rules, it's very possible the race to replace retiring Senator Barbara Boxer will feature two Democrats. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 13, 2015 at 9:00 PM PST
We say that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could become "California's first Latino Senate candidate." In 2004, former Treasurer of the United States Rosario Marin ran for the Senate but finished second in California's Republican primary. She was the state's first Latina candidate for the Senate.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.