Back in August, as expected, Joe Biden asked California’s junior United States Senator Kamala Harris to join his ticket as the 2020 Democratic vice presidential nominee. Harris is a historic pick: she is only the fourth woman to be chosen for a presidential ticket and the first Black woman and woman of south Asian descent.
Though Senator Harris rightfully received the lion’s share of the media attention following her selection, it wasn’t long before many reporters began asking another question: if Harris becomes Vice President, who will succeed her in the Senate? It’s a question that has been asked again more recently in the run-up to the vice presidential debate between Harris and Trump’s chief surrogate Mike Pence.
While the United States Constitution requires vacancies in the U.S. House to be filled by election, the Constitution gives states more leeway over how to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, owing in part to the fact that senators were originally not directly elected by the people. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Presently, thirty-seven states fill Senate vacancies at their next regularly scheduled general election. The remaining thirteen require that a special election be called. And only four states prohibit the governor from making an interim appointment, requiring instead that the seat remain vacant until the next election (whether regular or special) is held. In another three, the governor may make an appointment to fill the vacancy temporarily, but only under very strict conditions.
California is one of the states that permits vacancies to be filled by gubernatorial appointment. This means that if Kamala Harris becomes Vice President, California Governor Gavin Newsom will have the responsibility of picking Harris’ immediate successor… a weighty obligation. Beyond choosing a person for one of the most powerful legislative positions in the country, he has a rare opportunity to infuse the Democratic Party’s leadership with new blood.
Despite the state’s relatively young demographics, the California Democratic Party is dominated at the highest levels by its old guard.
Before Harris joined the Senate in 2017, both of California’s United States Senators had been in their seats since 1993.
Jerry Brown, Newsom’s predecessor as governor, served two terms in the 1970s, and returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011 a the age of seventy-three.
Newsom has a lot of factors to weigh in his decision.
Given the current racial climate in the U.S. and with the demographic makeup of the Golden State, it would be foolish to not pick a candidate of color.
Furthermore, California has a large Latinx population, and yet the state has never sent anyone from that quintessentially American community to the Senate.
Newsom would also be wise to take into account the political leanings of his state. While Newsom is aligned with more business-friendly elements of the Democratic Party (unsurprising, given his own success as a hospitality industry entrepreneur), the state’s Democratic base is solidly progressive.
However, with Gavin Newsom, it’s never a simple political calculation.
The Governor has a reputation for being impulsive, occasionally reckless, and unable to separate the personal from the political. Newsom is also a man with presidential ambitions of his own, and his choice could be influenced by how it will affect his own future electoral prospects. A list of potential candidates for the Senate seat, therefore, probably looks something like the below.
Governor Newsom started his political career in San Francisco and has always felt at home in the city. It is no surprise then that he and the current mayor, London Breed, are reported to be close political allies with something of a mentor-mentee relationship. Newsom has openly fed Breed’s political ambitions, encouraging her to think of herself as “the future ex-mayor of San Francisco.”
Even without a personal relationship with Newsom, Breed’s talents and personal history make her a compelling candidate.
Despite a childhood spent in poverty, her excellent academic record allowed her to climb ladders, first in education then in politics, until she became the first African-American woman to assume her city’s mayoralty. Breed has been praised for her fast response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with The Atlantic describing her actions as “a national model in fighting the pandemic.”
Alex Padilla has been serving in important elected offices (President of Los Angeles’ City Council, state senator, and currently as Secretary of State) since the age of twenty-six, and he is still three years shy of his fiftieth birthday.
The advantages of picking Padilla would be numerous. Besides being a versatile politician with an impressive résumé, Padilla is a personal friend and early endorser of Newsom, a Mexican-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S., and a native of Southern California (a region whose residents sometimes resent the political dominance of figures from the Bay Area in their state’s politics).
Kamala Harris cemented her reputation as a U.S. senator by bringing her prosecutorial skills to bear against a variety Trump cronies during Senate Committee hearings. One way to carry on her work in the Senate would be to appoint her successor as California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra.
Since his appointment to the job in 2017, Becerra has waged a war of legal attrition with the Trump regime, filing or joining over ninety lawsuits against measures on immigration, environmental regulations, public lands and many more issues.
While Becerra is a little older than other likely candidates (sixty-two years old), he is around the average age of the U.S. Senate. His status as California’s first Latino Attorney General could also please the Latino constituency.
Becerra is also no stranger to Washington D.C. politics.
He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for twelve terms, including a four-year stint as the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
Becerra’s experience of battling the Trump Administration – along with his insider knowledge of D.C. circles – would make him a key ally of a future Biden-Harris Administration, and a lethal opponent of Senate Republicans.
If Governor Newsom wants to make history, he could do worse than appointing the current Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti. Garcetti is already a groundbreaking politician: the youngest ever mayor of Los Angeles, its the first Jewish mayor, and its second consecutive Mexican-American mayor. Garcetti is energetic, and better than most politicians at staying culturally as well as politically relevant.
However, expecting Governor Newsom – who is contemplating his own presidential run as “the charming, good looking Californian guy” in the near future – to allow a similarly ambitious Californian who is just a little younger and a little more charismatic to mount the kind of springboard that has launched many Democrats in to the presidency is perhaps asking a little much.
Furthermore, Garcetti may not even need the leg up; reports are circulating that he may be offered a cabinet position if Biden wins in November.
California has fifty-three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, forty-five of which are held by Democrats. Governor Newsom may well choose to elevate a person who already represents the state in Washington D.C., especially since California’s Congressional delegation has a wealth of experience and represents the diversity of the party in both ideology and ethnicity.
California is home to some of the highest-ranking and most experienced legislators in the country; notably, both the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and the opposition leader (Kevin McCarthy) are Californians. Possible candidates from the House include Representative Karen Bass (who was recently considered by the Biden campaign for Vice President) and Representative Adam Schiff (who gained fame, and some infamy, for his prominent role in Trump’s impeachment).
Newsom could also court favor with the powerful progressive branch of the party by choosing a candidate like Barbara Lee (a hero among progressives for her solitary 2001 vote against the invasion of Afghanistan) or Ro Khanna (a chief advocate of Bernie Sanders who co-chaired the Senator’s 2020 campaign).
Many California progressive activists distrust Newsom, to the extent that they chose to exclude him from the state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Picking a progressive for the seat could hep repair the relationship.
However, all of these representatives have a common problem, from Newsom’s perspective: the fact that they spend most of their time in Washington D.C. means that none have developed particularly close working relationships with him. And he may be inclined to pick someone he knows well.
Of course, Newsom will only have to fill a vacancy if Biden and Harris win in November, which, while probable, is by no means set in stone.