SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Within seconds of the ascension this week of Sen. Kamala Harris to the Democratic presidential ticket, her home state of California was already looking to the next question: Who will replace her if she becomes vice president?
If Joe Biden is elected president, Harris' rise will leave an opening in January for her seat in the U.S. Senate. That pick will be made by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and it stands to be consequential, not only for him but also for his sprawling state and a nation that has long viewed it as a political and cultural bellwether.
"This is a proud moment — historic," Newsom said Wednesday, speaking of Harris' nomination and noting their rise together through the crucible of Bay Area politics, "which is not for the timid." He said the choice of her successor "is not what I'm focused on right now," given his state's dismal pandemic situation.
But when asked by a reporter whether would-be candidates had been pitching themselves for the job, Newsom paused for a rueful chuckle.
"You may be the only one who hasn't, unless you just did — and that is only a slight exaggeration," he said.
In fact, political strategists say, the choice will be tricky for Newsom, a white man who would be replacing a female senator who is Black and of Indian and Jamaican descent in a heavily Democratic state with no ethnic majority and innumerable factions.
Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a reckoning on racism. But Latinos make up nearly 40% of California's population of 40 million, and the state's first Latino senator also would be history-making.
"And women are not going to want to lose one of the few women in the Senate," added Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist who for 20 years advised the former occupant of Harris' Senate seat, Barbara Boxer. Newsom also has deep ties to the state's LGBT community since his time as mayor of San Francisco, and a responsibility to balance power between the state's north, south, inland and coastal regions.
A generational changing of California's political guard has produced a deep bench of Democratic leaders with high profiles, robust egos and powerful statewide interests behind them. Newsom would have no shortage of names to choose from. Almost two dozen were being floated around the state capital even before the announcement that Biden's running mate would be Harris.
Among them: Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, popular Latinos and Newsom allies who have both won statewide office; U.S. Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Barbara Lee of Oakland, who are Black and who were both considered as potential running mates for Biden.
Also vying for a spot on the list: popular female officeholders such as U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine and state Senate President Toni Atkins; grassroots progressives such as U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna of Silicon Valley, who was a national co-chairman of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign; and chief executives of diverse cities such as Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland and Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach.
"There will obviously be pressure to pick another woman or someone of color," said David Townsend, a longtime Sacramento Democratic consultant. But he noted that any one choice is likely to disappoint a host of other contenders, no small matter if Newsom ends up facing a primary challenge should he seek re-election.
In interviews, a few political consultants and elected officials suggested Newsom might want to appoint a caretaker — his predecessor as governor, Jerry Brown, for instance, or even Newsom himself, given his widely assumed national aspirations. Or he might prefer a statewide office holder, whose move also would let Newsom appoint a replacement for the rest of that person's term in office.
Others underscored the wisdom of picking a candidate with a war chest and name recognition in a state where whoever inherits the seat will have to run for re-election in two years — someone, for example, like Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who is wealthy and an experienced fundraiser, or U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair from Burbank who led the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and has 2.4 million Twitter followers.
For California, the pick has far-reaching implications. The state has spent the past four years as a bastion of presidential resistance, filing or joining nearly 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration, and burnishing its reputation as the country's most liberal state on issues like immigration, climate change and consumer protection. With Harris in the VP role, the state would not have to play defense.
And for the short term at least, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 87, remains in office, the potential clout of Feinstein's seniority, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership position and Harris as an ally in the White House could open a new front for California priorities and ideas.