Kamala Harris Goes to Washington?

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Image credit: 
artboySHF, Shutterstock

News broke Thursday morning that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has handed in his resignation.  Holder has been a loyal member of Obama’s cabinet from day one, but now Obama must find someone just as loyal to replace him; let the speculation abound.

One name that will definitely be on the short-list is California Attorney General Kamala Harris.  But as we assess Harris’ chances of going to Washington, two questions surface: 1) would it be smart for Harris, who has designs for higher office, to accept a possible Obama offer and 2) how would Harris leaving Sacramento for Washington affect California politics?

The first question is actually quite straightforward.  The disadvantages of accepting a theoretical Obama offer overwhelm any pluses. With Obama in his last years of office and with Republicans poised to take control of the entire Congress, Obama won’t be getting much done and the hyper-partisan nature of Washington means the Administration will be playing defense for its last two years.  She would be bogged down in partisan fights, thousands of miles away from California, making a run for Governor or Senate all the more difficult.  And who was the last U.S. Attorney General to go on to make anything of themselves in politics? Robert F. Kennedy – and that had more to do with his last name than his Cabinet position.

But what if she did accept the job? What would be next for California’s political theater? All of a sudden a formable candidate for either Governor or the U.S. Senate (both Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are rumored to be considering retirement), would be taken out of the equation, making life easier for those like Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and current State Controller (soon-to-be State Treasurer) John Chiang who have been pinning for a top job for some time, but also for more marginal candidates like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But without a strong contender like Kamala Harris, who could strong-arm some of the more marginal candidates out, California’s 2018 gubernatorial calculus becomes even more intriguing.  Let’s say Newsom, Villaraigosa, Garcetti, and Chiang all run for Governor.  All are equally strong contenders, but none are likely able to dominate the field, meaning they could split the Democratic vote rather evenly. Now, let’s say San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Fresno Mayor (and possible soon-to-be State Controller) Ashley Swearengin, both Republicans, run in 2018 and split the Republican-leaning vote relatively evenly.  This could result in the Democrats each receiving about 13% to 15% and the two Republicans getting around 20%.  Thus, under California’s top-two system, just the two Republicans would advance giving California a Republican Governor.  

But Governor Jerry Brown’s future plans could also shift if Harris goes to Washington.  With Harris almost assured victory in November, her confirmation as U.S. Attorney General would create a vacancy here in California, which would be filled by someone nominated by Brown.  Thus, Brown could nominate a loyal placeholder for the spot, who has pledged not to run in 2018, enabling Brown to run for the Attorney General spot, which he is eligible for having just served one term from 2007 to 2011, after finishing his last term as Governor.

All of this speculation is probably for naught as previously mentioned.  But it is impressive that one person’s resignation could reshuffle the California political calculus as much as it would.

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno.

Carson Bruno, a Hoover Institution research fellow, studies California's political and policy landscape.