No sooner had Sen. Barbara Boxer made her stunning announcement Thursday morning that she would not seek re-election in 2016 than speculation focused almost exclusively on her fellow California Democrats as possible successors.
So far, the names of Democrats most often mentioned to succeed the four-term senator are those of two arch-liberal statewide officials: state Attorney General Kamala Harris, once hailed by President Obama as "the best-looking attorney general in the U.S.," and State Treasurer John Chang, who has a strong following among his fellow Asian-Americans in the Golden State.
Moreover, the name of billionaire and Democrat powerhouse Tom Steyer began to emerge as a Senate prospect. In 2014, Steyer and his wife were the top individual political donors in the country, spending more than $74 million on Democratic candidates who share their view that global warming is a threat.
But despite the fact that the GOP has not held a California statewide office in a decade and last won a U.S. Senate race in 1988, California Republican leaders insisted to Newsmax that their state’s "jungle primary" and the expected crowd of Democrats in the race next year could make their dream of a Senate seat come true.
"As we have been doing for the last two years ... when electoral opportunities present themselves, we will take advantage of them,"state Republican Chairman Jim Brulte told Newsmax hours after Boxer disclosed her plans to retire.
Brulte was referring to his party being able to field a full slate of candidates for statewide offices and open U.S. House districts in 2014, despite so many years of losing. To no one’s surprise, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown resoundingly captured a fourth term last year and the rest of his party's statewide slate won handily.
GOP leaders generally agree that for their candidates to have a chance, they must have access to major dollars and be less conservative than most Republican officeholders on issues such as abortion and marriage.
The name that fits that criterion and is increasingly on Republican lips is that of Charles Munger Jr. The son of Warren Buffet’s business partner, physicist Munger has used his own wealth on such statewide initiatives such as that which changed the state's election system to its present, French-style, form: All candidates appear on the same ballot in the June primary and if no one receives a majority of votes, the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, meet in a run-off in November.
Most recently, Munger poured an estimated $43 million of his own wealth into a losing 2012 statewide initiative to make paycheck protection — guaranteeing union members the right to keep their dues from going to candidates — a part of the California constitution. Like similar measures in 1998 and 2005, Proposition 32 was also defeated — by 56.6 to 43.4 percent.
Asked by Bloomberg News in 2012 if he was planning a political career of his own, Munger quipped, "If running for public office had been my intent, I would have been well-advised not to raise up as many adversaries as my quests to pass political reform have done.""
This year, however, talk of a Munger for Senate campaign has already begun. California's GOP National Committeeman Shawn Steel, a strong conservative, spoke excitedly of a bid by the centrist Munger, who has long been at dagger's ends with his party’s right-of-center activists.
"A Munger candidacy would be terribly exciting and would provide an opportunity to end the Democratic hegemony in California," Steel told us. "And a run-off against Tom Steyer would be a true gladiator contest."
As to California's history of rejecting big-spending businessman-candidates of both parties in favor of more seasoned officeholders, Steel remarked, "That's true."
But after making all that effort last year to divest himself of $74 million of his oil-drenched fortune in an effort to lose the U.S. Senate, Steyer has some juice that could prove potent in a crowded primary with everyone on the same ballot.
"Charles Munger is the Republican who could finish him off in a run-off. I don't know what his intentions are, but I'm excited about the possibility."
Other Republican prospects being mentioned include Pete Peterson, 2014 GOP nominee for secretary of state. Now executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, Peterson turned in the best performance of any Republican statewide candidate by winning 46.4 percent against Democrat Alex Padilla.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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