Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) announcement Thursday that she won't seek re-election when her term ends in 2016 will ignite a scramble among prominent California Democrats eager to fill the role, some analysts said.
But the retirement of Boxer, 74, also marks the beginning of a massive overhaul of the Golden State's top elected positions, Larry Gerston, a political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University, told The Huffington Post. In 2018, 76-year-old Gov. Jerry Brown (D)'s term will end, and it's likely that 81-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), who has held office since 1992, won't run for re-election that year, either.
"These people are all trying to position themselves," Gerston said of potential Democratic successors to Boxer, Brown and Feinstein. "What we're talking about is a big shakeup among the highest offices in the state, beginning in 2016. Democrats need to think about each other and who's running against them. You don't want to leave yourself poisoned."
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 47, and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, 50, are the two biggest liberal names being floated to take over for Boxer. Gerston said he believes Newsom will more likely hold out for the governorship, as the former San Francisco mayor "has always indicated he likes to stay in the executive branch." Harris, he added, has made a name for herself nationally on issues like mortgage settlements and human trafficking, and is "a good possibility" for higher office.
While Newsom and Harris both publicly commented on Boxer's announcement Thursday, both remained mum on their own future plans. "Senator Boxer is a true progressive champion and a tireless advocate for California’s priorities," Harris said in a statement. "I wish her all the best."
Newsom, meanwhile, praised Boxer's tenure while touting his own history as a native Californian. Gertson said that tactic suggests Newsom may be trying to position himself for a future campaign. "Growing up in Marin County, I remember Senator Boxer as my tenacious representative on the Board of Supervisors and I knew at a young age what every American everywhere now knows to be an immutable truth -- there’s no 'quit' in Barbara Boxer," Newsom said in a statement emailed to reporters.
Other Democrats rumored to go after Boxer's seat include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 61, and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, 57. While Steyer issued a statement lauding Boxer as a "warrior for progressive causes," he didn't indicate whether a 2016 run would be in his future. A source close to Villaraigosa told The Wall Street Journal that he was much more likely to mount a campaign for governor than for U.S. Senate.
Regardless of who ends up California's next U.S. senator, Gerston said the job likely will be filled by a Democrat. "While there are one or two Republican possibilities, I'd say they have an uphill battle," he said, noting that the state has historically swayed blue and voter turnout is higher during presidential election years. "We'll probably remain in Democratic hands with someone as liberal or as close to liberal as Barbara Boxer."
Potential Republican candidates who may run for Boxer's seat include former Goldman Sachs executive Neel Kashkari, 41, who lost last year's gubernatorial election to Brown; San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, 47, and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, 58, who poured nearly $200 million of her own money into an unsuccessful campaign against Brown in 2010.
As for Brown's own political ambitions (he has run unsuccessfully for both California Senate and U.S. president in the past), Gerston said he believes the governor is more concerned with solidifying his legacy than mounting a campaign for a 2018 Senate seat. "He's in the last leg of his governorship," Gerston said. "He's going to nurse high speed rail, follow through with education reform, complete prison realignment. These are some serious issues. He won't leave any of that behind to start campaigning."
Boxer, who was elected the same year as Feinstein in 1992, leaves behind her own legacy as an environmental reformer and a champion for women's rights. She said she would continue to fight for progressive issues in a video announcing her retirement on Thursday.
"I'm going to continue working on the issues that I love," she said. "I have to make sure the Senate seat stays progressive -- that is so critical -- and I want to help our Democratic candidate for president make history. But you know what? I want to come home."
Mollie Reilly contributed reporting.