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.
When Boxer announced she would not seek reelection next year, some Latino political leaders in Southern California objected to descriptions of Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, as the top contenders. (Newsom ended up opting out.)
Fabian Nuñez, a former state Assembly speaker from Los Angeles, described Harris as the candidate of a Bay Area Democratic “machine” that included Boxer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and state party Chairman John Burton.
Boxer and Feinstein have been a “very strong collective political force” for the Bay Area since they won their Senate seats 22 years ago, but Latinos are now a much larger share of the vote in California elections, Nuñez said.
“The dynamics have changed since 1992,” said Nuñez, who named Villaraigosa and Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) as viable contenders in a race against Harris. “We have a role to play.”
Becerra and Sanchez are still weighing whether to run for the seat.