Latino Groups See Harris’s Vacant Senate Seat as Key Prize

Kamala Harris’s ascent to the vice presidency has touched off a furious battle in California to fill her Senate seat, with calls escalating for Governor Gavin Newsom to name the state’s first Latino U.S. senator.

California is nearly 40% Latino and advocacy groups see the departure of Harris in January as an opportunity to better represent the state’s diversity in Washington.

“The highest chamber in Congress must represent the communities it serves, and California is long overdue to have a Latino voice in the halls of the United States Senate,” said Nathalie Rayes, chief executive officer of the Latino Victory Fund, which backs Latino candidates nationally and is supporting California Secretary of State Alex Padilla for Harris’s seat.

Control of the U.S. Senate won’t be clear until after January run-off elections in Georgia, but the California seat won’t tip the balance either way since Newsom is sure to replace Harris with another Democrat. The incoming senator will face voters in 2022 and the governor is being encouraged to make a statement with his pick.

Some point to California’s history, dating to 1992, of having two female senators and urge Newsom to consider a female candidate such as Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis. She is a former ambassador and prodigious fundraiser who’s close to Harris and co-chaired events that raised more than $11 million for the Biden-Harris ticket in the critical weeks leading up to the presidential election.

No Latinas currently serve in statewide elected positions.

Others whose names are circulating as candidates include U.S. Representatives Ro Khanna, Karen Bass, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter. But with the Democratic majority in the House narrowed, it is unlikely a Democratic House member would be chosen. California officials in the mix include state Senate President Toni Atkins, Controller Betty Yee and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.

Newsom acknowledged that he’s being lobbied by numerous candidates for the position -- and their advocates inside and outside government -- and says he hasn’t set a timetable for making a choice.

“The process is just beginning to unfold,” Newsom said last week. “We are working through the cattle call of considerations related to what’s the profile, the right choice, to replace Senator Harris.”

Advocacy organizations including Latino Victory and the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have coalesced to support Padilla. The two-term secretary of state has close relations with California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, for whom he once worked as an intern. Padilla was statewide chair of Newsom’s first run for governor in 2009.

Latino Victory’s support for Padilla comes with a seven-figure ad buy.

Others are backing Kounalakis, who was an early endorser of Harris’s presidential campaign last year, or California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra, is the first Latino to serve as attorney general and has staked out a high public profile waging a legal war with the Trump administration over issues ranging from the environment to immigrant rights.

Democratic strategists say the pressure to name a Latino senator is intensifying as people of Hispanic origin become a larger and more important part of the Democratic base in California, now accounting for about 30% of all eligible voters in the state.

“California’s roots are Hispanic, from the Spanish missions to Mexico controlling most of the state at one point,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who worked on Newsom’s 2009 campaign. “We have more Latino residents than every state in the country by far. And we’ve never had anyone who’s Latino represent us in the U.S. Senate. That kind of speaks for itself.”

And preliminary election results show that Biden did not do as well with Latino voters as had been expected. Trump gained as many as 12 percentage points in Florida’s majority-Hispanic counties and 7 percentage points on average in similar counties in Texas, compared with four years ago.

People familiar with Newsom’s thinking say he hasn’t tipped his hand, even to close associates, on which way he may be leaning. In public remarks, Newsom has frequently alluded to the wide range of elected officials interested in the post and the difficulty of making a choice. An announcement is unlikely before Harris formally resigns from the Senate to move to the White House in January.

Padilla, 47, is the son of Mexican immigrants and an engineer by training who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working for Feinstein, he served in the California state senate and as president of the Los Angeles City Council. “He has been elected twice statewide by overwhelming margins, demonstrating that he has the profile and reach across a broad swath of diverse voters throughout the state,” Latino Victory’s Rayes said.

Padilla “would be honored to serve as California’s U.S. senator,” said his spokesman David Beltran, but is currently focused on the count and certification of election results in the most populous U.S. state.

Kounalakis, 54, served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2010 to 2013 and was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. She’s a former real estate executive and longtime Democratic fundraiser who co-chaired three online events with big-ticket San Francisco and Los Angeles donors in the leadup to the election.

“This is a stakeholder process and people are voicing their opinions,” Kounalakis said in an interview. “The governor is a thoughtful person and takes input. I assume he will weigh all of this -- gender, ethnicity, qualifications -- and take all of it into account as he makes his decision.”

Becerra, with Newsom’s backing, has become a leading legal antagonist of the Trump administration, filing more than 100 lawsuits on issues ranging from auto pollution limits to the use of federal funds to build a wall on the Mexican border. Becerra, 62, served in Congress from 1993 to 2017 and chaired both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus.

“If you are asked by the president of the United States or the governor of the state to take on that kind of an assignment, it is hard to say no,” Becerra said in an interview. “I’m fortunate that I’m in a place where I can make a difference. And I’m fortunate that people might consider me for other positions where I could make, again, a bigger difference.”

The short tenure for Harris’s replacement before facing a re-election fight may give an edge to candidates who have run for statewide office in the past and demonstrated strong fundraising ability, some strategists say.

“Newsom has a tough choice ahead of him,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist who is a longtime adviser to Feinstein.

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