Former Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa (D) is close to a decision on whether to launch an uphill California Senate bid.
A half-dozen sources who’ve talked to Villaraigosa in recent days say he’s likely to make a decision by the end of the week, with most expecting he will opt to challenge California Attorney General Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMcAuliffe rolls out ad featuring Obama ahead of campaign stop McAuliffe, Youngkin tied less than two weeks out from Virginia's Election Day: poll Are supply chain disruptions the beginning of the end of globalization? MORE (D) for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) seat.
“It’s very likely that he decides this week,” said former California State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D), a Villaraigosa confidant who has been in daily contact with the former mayor. “I’d bet that he’s running.”
Villaraigosa’s allies admit that Harris, a favorite of national liberal and women’s groups, is formidable. She leads in early polls, is better known, better funded and has more institutional support than him.
But they say the former mayor relishes being the underdog and began every race of his career behind in the polls.
“If he does decide to run for Senate, it would certainly be an uphill fight with an extremely strong candidate in Kamala Harris. But I don’t think that you can ever count Antonio out,” said Jimmy Blackman, a former senior Villaraigosa adviser. “I don’t think that anybody in America runs harder than Antonio.”
Villaraigosa will aim to expand upon his Los Angeles and Hispanic bases by talking up his work on climate change and the Port of Los Angeles while using Harris’s support from Bay Area power brokers to paint her as the Democratic machine candidate.
“He’ll run very strong in Southern California, and if you add the environmental vote and put those pieces together with Latinos, that’s a political equation that can get someone out of the primary,” Nuñez said.
Harris starts off with better name recognition, having run statewide twice, and she’s more popular with the base.
She’s held double-digit leads over Villaraigosa and others in a number of recent surveys, including two that were conducted for Villaraigosa allies.
And as Villaraigosa has spent weeks soliciting opinions from hundreds of Democrats and seeing if he can untangle himself from his numerous business interests, Harris has sprinted ahead in organizing and fundraising.
Ace Smith, a top California Democratic strategist who has run past campaigns for both candidates, is in Harris’s corner. She’s been aggressively working to lock down her liberal and Northern California base with endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a half-dozen Northern California congressmen.
Harris also has netted endorsements from Villaraigosa’s backyard: L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson (D) and California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.
“Kamala Harris has never taken any campaign for granted,” said Harris spokesman Brian Brokaw. “She has won statewide office in California twice since 2010 by assembling a coalition of voters that represents the diversity of the largest state in the country, and that is exactly how she intends to win election to the U.S. Senate.”
Harris, who came up in San Francisco politics, also has a geographic edge.
While Villaraigosa’s Southern California base is more populous, Northern Californians are much more likely to vote on Election Day.
L.A. County ranks dead last in voter turnout in the state. While California is 25 percent Hispanic, the electorate was just over 13 percent Hispanic in the last two primaries, according to projections from the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.
California’s unusual primary process changes the dynamics, too. The top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party, meaning both Democrats could get through to the general election.
Villaraigosa might be better positioned in a general election against Harris. His pro-business record and educational stances might sway independents and Republicans more than Harris’s record would.
But that’s not likely. Even though Republicans are unlikely to get a top-tier recruit, someone will be on the ticket, and GOP candidates tend to pull at least 40 percent in primaries.
“If this goes Dem-Dem I’ll run around the capital naked,” said Political Data Inc. Vice President Paul Mitchell.
Harris is also likely to get union support, though even in liberal-leaning California that’s a two-edged sword.
Villaraigosa infuriated teachers unions with his strong support for charter schools and other reforms, and while he has support among private-sector unions, his allies concede that most of them will back Harris.
Villaraigosa’s personal life could also be problematic. His 2007 affair with a Telemundo anchorwoman got huge statewide coverage. But his allies warn Harris against a personal mudslinging campaign.
“They both have negatives and both sides will exploit the other’s negatives,” said Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles Democratic power player who’s neutral in the race. “With Antonio it’ll be the affairs and the divorce, and with Kamala it will be her past relationship with [former San Francisco Mayor] Willie Brown.”
Advisers to both candidates push back against the notion that the race will be racially polarizing. Villaraigosa is banking on winning huge numbers of Latinos; Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, aims to do well with the large black and Asian-American populations.
Villaraigosa’s allies are already looking to paint Harris as the hand-chosen candidate of party elites rather than set up a black versus Hispanic fight, however.
“The bitterness by some of us in Southern California with respect to how [the Boxer retirement] has happened has taken a toll on people. … For Latino and Southern California leaders it’s turned into ‘Run, Antonio, run,’” said Nuñez. “But this is not a Latino versus black issue, and it can’t be about that.”