Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are political institutions in California. They have represented Golden State in the U.S. Senate together for the past 23 years.
But Boxer on Thursday announced her retirement after 2016. Feinstein, at 81 years, is the oldest member of the Senate, and has hinted that she might not seek re-election for another six-year term in 2018. On top of that, Gov. Jerry Brown can't seek reelection 2018 after a record fourth term.
The result could be a fast and furious changing of the guard for California’s delegation to Washington. Some longtime California politicos — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, and others — could throw their hats into the ring. But a number of young, up-and-coming rising stars could also run for California’s first open Senate seat in more than 20 years.
Let’s examine some of the 50-and-under Democratic candidates who could fit the bill.
Kamala Harris, California Attorney General
Top Democrats are high on both Harris, 50, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 47.
Harris’ name has been speculated-about for higher political office for the past few years. She won re-election to her attorney general post in November, dominating Republican challenger Ronald Gold with almost 60 percent of the vote.
Most California Democrats expect her to run for some kind of higher office in the near future. They’re just not sure which path she’ll take, and whether she’ll aim for Boxer’s seat in 2016, Feinstein’s seat in 2018, or the California governor’s mansion in 2018.
“Hope Kamala wants to be [governor],” said one Democratic strategist based in California, requesting anonymity to speculate about her future.
Whatever she chooses, it’s clear she’s on track for a bright future within the Democratic Party. She’s the first woman, African-American, and Asian-American attorney general of California, and she has been compared to a “female Barack Obama.” Supporters praise her tackling of issues involving human trafficking, hate crimes, and recidivism.
Harris released a statement on Thursday commemorating Boxer’s tenure, but she did not comment on whether she was considering running for her post.
“For over three decades, Senator Barbara Boxer has served the people of California with an unwavering commitment to bettering the lives of her constituents and all Americans,” Harris said. “Senator Boxer is a true progressive champion and a tireless advocate for California’s priorities. I know she will never stop fighting for what matters, and I wish her all the best.”
Gavin Newsom, California lieutenant governor
Multiple Democratic operatives said the prevailing belief is that both Newsom and Harris want to run for governor, a more coveted position. But not against each other. So one might bite and run for Senate, while the other would wait in line for the gubernatorial opening in 2018.
Right now, the 47-year-old Newsom is closer to that position as California’s No. 2 behind Gov. Jerry Brown. In 2003, he was elected mayor of San Francisco, becoming the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century.
Newsom first garnered national attention in 2004, when he shocked the regular order by directing the San Francisco city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, which at that point was a violation of state law. The California Supreme Court eventually annulled those marriages. He also was a vocal opponent of Proposition 8, the ballot proposition that banned gay marriage in California in 2008.
Newsom released a three-paragraph statement commemorating Boxer’s run in the Senate, but also declined to comment on whether he would vie for her seat.
Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles mayor
At just 43, Garcetti is the youngest mayor in Los Angeles’ history, and his political future looks bright. But he said Thursday that he won’t run for Boxer’s seat.
"The first thing we should do today is thank Senator Barbara Boxer for being a powerful champion for our city, state and nation in the United States Senate,” Garcetti said. “I love my job and I love my city and I am committed to the work here. I will not run for Sen. Boxer's seat."
His term as mayor isn’t up until 2017, so a run for Feinstein’s seat or for governor would be a more realistic possibility.
Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State
One Democratic strategist called Padilla the “dark horse” of the race who, for now, will be overshadowed by the bigger names of Harris and Newsom.
Padilla is California’s first Latino Secretary of State, and at just 41 years of age, he already has a long and fairly accomplished political career. In 1999, he became the first Latino and youngest person to ever be elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He served as president of the city council for five of his seven-plus years in office. From there, he moved on to the California state senate, where he served for almost eight years.
Padilla beat Republican candidate Pete Peterson, who had been endorsed by The Los Angeles Times, by a 53.6-46.4 mark in November.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer
The 45-year-old Sandberg, who vaulted to fame with the success of “Lean In,” has been at the center of various pieces of “buzz” about her interest in Boxer’s Senate seat — even if it meant challenging Boxer directly. But sources close to her at Facebook have poured cold water on her interest in the seat as recently as Thursday.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.