It’s starting to look as if the race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer in 2016 will be more of an anointment of Kamala D. Harris than an election. The list of prominent Democrats who won’t be running keeps getting longer.
Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa bowed out, as did state Treasurer John Chiang. This week, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said no, unequivocally, to a run. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) said in a memo sent to reporters Tuesday that she’d announce her run on Thursday. She took it back Wednesday, but later that day her campaign promised a “significant” announcement Thursday. If she does enter the race, months and millions of dollars behind Harris, it will be with the added disadvantage of a shaky start. Another possible contender, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), has not yet declared either way.
The reluctance of any sitting politician to enter this race is certainly understandable. Harris, in her second term as California’s attorney general, is a formidable candidate with a national profile who would be hard to beat. She’s got a financial edge too, having raised more than $2.5 million since January. And many prominent state and local party leaders have already pledged their allegiance to her, including L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson. The influential PAC Emily’s List is on Harris’ side.
No one is suggesting that Harris is not qualified to run; clearly she is, and she may well turn out to be the superior Democratic candidate — should anyone take her on. But as with Hillary Rodham Clinton, so far the only viable Democratic candidate for president, we’d prefer to see real competition. An unopposed candidacy is great for political parties, not for voters or democracy.
A strong field of Democratic candidates is more likely to ensure that campaign debates cover topics Democrats care about, and elicit authentic answers instead of canned responses. Without such a vigorous vetting, Harris would be able to script her communication so carefully as to be meaningless. Social media enable candidates to bypass tough news media questions and reach voters directly. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates, who so far include Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside and a bunch of unknowns, will set much of the agenda for the larger campaign, and you can bet it will be an endless dog pile on Harris.
Political parties should not be kingmakers. In reliably blue California, however, that’s what happens when a field is cleared — deliberately or not — for a Democratic candidate.