Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis announces early bid in 2026 California governor’s race

Eleni Kounalakis, second from left, smiles as she speaks to a small group of people.
Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, shown in 2018, announced Monday that she is running for governor in 2026.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis announced Monday she is running for governor, laying down an early marker for what is likely to be a vigorous 2026 campaign to replace termed-out Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Democrat asserted in her announcement that she is well qualified for the post because of the combination of her experience in government — two terms in her current office as well as serving as U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration — as well as in the private sector, in which she led a Sacramento development company founded by her father.

“As the proud daughter of an immigrant who came to California with nothing, my family owes everything to this state — I’m running for governor to ensure all Californians have the opportunities we’ve had,” Kounalakis said in a statement.


With Gov. Gavin Newsom in New York for Climate Week, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis is in charge of the state.

Sept. 23, 2022

Her family is wealthy and has spent generously on their political priorities, including Kounalakis’ lieutenant governor’s race and Phil Angelides’ unsuccessful 2006 gubernatorial run.

The 57-year-old’s announcement that she was opening a gubernatorial campaign committee allows her to raise $72,800 per donor, and mirrors Newsom’s decision to enter the 2018 governor’s race three years early. The pair are advised by the same political consultants.

Eric Jaye, a top advisor to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during his unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Newsom, said entering the race early has potential risks as well as rewards.

“If she is able to use the first move to her advantage to gather a critical mass of endorsements and support, it creates tremendous momentum for her campaign. The other obvious truth if she’s not, then she’s displaying weakness,” the Democratic San Francisco-based consultant said. “It’s a calculated risk. It’s a bold maneuver with an obvious upside and a clear downside.”

The race to lead the world’s fifth-largest economy is expected to draw many contenders from a large pool of ambitious Democratic politicians looking for their next perch.

If Kounalakis is successful, she would be the first woman elected to lead the state. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Hewlett-Packard chief Meg Whitman are among the women who have unsuccessfully run for the post.


“We have never had a woman governor of the state of California. If I don’t try to organize a campaign to be the first, who will?” Kounalakis told The Times in 2022.

The lieutenant governor’s post is viewed as largely ceremonial, but two of the state’s last four governors held the office: Newsom and Gray Davis. Kounalakis highlighted her work in the job opposing tuition hikes and other policies that would probably be popular with the state’s liberal voters.

“I’ve fought hard to keep the doors of opportunity open for all by making college more accessible, took on the Trump administration’s attempts to expand offshore drilling, fought for new laws to protect women from sexual assault, and expanded access to reproductive choice,” she said.