Villaraigosa opts out of Senate race -- and now it gets interesting

villaraigosa-with-teachers-fb.jpgVillaraigosa with LA teachers while mayor.

Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Tuesday that, contrary to signs as recently as last week, he will not run against Kamala Harris and others for the Senate seat being vacated next year by Barbara Boxer. He was being pushed by many Latinos politicos to get in the race, and he has been busily holding conversations and testing his prospects to both raise the money and to win statewide, where he has never run. In the end, he decided no. His Facebook post:

My grandfather came to this great state more than 100 years ago and I have had the privilege of serving its people for the last two decades, from our state capitol in Sacramento to L.A.’s City Hall, as a legislator and chief executive. I have worked hard to create solutions to the important issues facing our state. A quality education that prepares our kids to compete in the global economy, good-paying jobs for all Californians, access to affordable health care and a strategy to combat the crisis of global climate change, are the issues that keep me fighting for the people of California.

I am humbled by the encouragement I’ve received from so many to serve in the United States Senate. But as I think about how best to serve the people of this great state, I know that my heart and my family are here in California, not Washington, D.C. I have decided not to run for the U.S. Senate and instead continue my efforts to make California a better place to live, work and raise a family. We have come a long way, but our work is not done, and neither am I.

Thank you for your support.

Harris said in response, “Mayor Villaraigosa and I have been friends and colleagues for many years. The city of Los Angeles, and our state and nation, have benefitted greatly from his leadership. I know he has much more to offer.”

Villaraigosa's Facebook post can be read as just a decision to pass on this grueling campaign — and expose his record in Los Angeles to intense scrutiny, led by his own former campaign team, now working for Harris and aware of every Villarigosa weak spot — or as a hint that he intends to act on his previously admitted hankering to run for governor in 2018. Even that I wouldn't bet on, especially if Hillary Clinton wins for president and offers Villaraigosa a more comfortable role. He would turn 65 in 2018, but more importantly Villaraigosa would have been out of elected office for five years by then — and it would be 13 years since his last truly tough race, the one he won by defeating Los Angles mayor James Hahn in 2005. Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, is already raising money for 2018 and has a head start on Villaraigosa.

More immediately, Villaraigosa's opt-out throws open the Senate race for other aspirants who may want to take on Harris, who has been anointed by the Bay Area wing of the California Democratic Party and who has also some received some preemptive Southern California endorsements. The names being talked about on the Democratic side include Rep. Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, newly installed LA county Supervisor Hilda Solis, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Rep. Adam Schiff and former Army Secretary Louis Caldera. None, by the way, have yet said they are going to run. Villaraigosa lunches tomorrow at a policy retreat of the California Legislative Latino Caucus in Napa, where the subject of a potential Latino alternative to Harris is surely a topic tonight.

Some analysis and reaction to the Villaraigosa news:

  • Michael Finnegan, LA Times: Villaraigosa’s decision to bypass the contest for Barbara Boxer’s seat in the U.S. Senate leaves an opening for an array of lesser known Democrats to run...Of the House members known to be considering the Senate race, Schiff has the most money in the bank -- more than $2.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign money. For Republicans, Villaraigosa’s announcement will have little effect. The party’s popularity in California has dropped so low that its prospects for capturing Boxer’s seat are poor.
  • Christopher Cadelago, Sacramento Bee: His departure leaves Latino leaders without an obvious choice, and could prompt some of them to declare support for the only announced candidate in the race, Democrat Kamala Harris, the state attorney general….Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and leaders from the California Latino Legislative Caucus have said they are concerned about a possible lack of ethnic and geographical diversity in the field. In an unorthodox appeal earlier this month, the caucus commissioned a poll, timing its release to statements that emphasized a Latino candidate would motivate voters, particularly Latinos, to go to the polls in 2016.
  • Gene Maddaus, LA Weekly: The statement suggests that Villaraigosa is still very interested in running for governor...Newsom has already opened a committee for the race, and at this point it would be surprising if Villaraigosa does not follow suit relatively soon. Polls showed that Villaraigosa would have faced a difficult battle against Harris. The attorney general has a strong base in Northern California, while L.A. voters — who should form Villaraigosa's base — have mixed feelings about him. Latino voters strongly support him, but African-American voters — who have traditionally been a key part of his coalition — would have sided with Harris. Villaraigosa figures to match up a bit better against Newsom. Both suffered setbacks due to extra-marital affairs, so neither could make much headway with that line of attack.

Meanwhile: Tom Del Beccaro, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, today officially launched his exploratory committee to run for the Boxer seat. It's a top-two primary so two Democrats could qualify for the general, or the Democrats could do internecine battle and allow a Republican to get in the general or even finish first in the initial go-round.

Before Villaraigosa made his announcement, Todd Purdum wrote today in Politico that Republicans were hoping for a Condoleezza Rice candidacy that would save the party from being non-competitive in the race. But all indications are she's not going to lift one finger toward running. Even so, Purdum argues, Republicans are gaining strength on the local level in California and someone could make a run for governor in 2018.

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