Sen. Harris addresses the California Democratic Convention in 2019
Sen. Harris addresses the California Democratic Convention in 2019 (Photo: Gagae Skidmore, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

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.

Lon­don Breed

London Breed is the Mayor of San Francisco

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

Alex Padilla is California's Secretary of State

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).

Xavier Becer­ra

Xavier Becerra is California's Attorney General
Xavier Becer­ra is Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Commp­ns license)

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.

Eric Garcetti

Eric Garcetti is the mayor of Los Angeles
Eric Garcetti is the may­or of Los Ange­les (Pho­to: Engage LA, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives

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.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “Scramble for the Senate: Who will replace Kamala Harris if the Democratic ticket wins?”

  1. New­som could even step down and have his suc­ces­sor pick him­self for the job. Of course, that has not worked well for gov­er­nors who have done that.

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