Kamala for governor? She jokes, but the state lacks a giant

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SACRAMENTO, California — The contest to succeed Gavin Newsom in the nation’s biggest, bluest state is already turning bitter. And it’s still more than two years away.

California’s gubernatorial sweepstakes are well underway in a stampede for early blessings from powerful insiders, scheming among the growing field of contenders and hushed conversations with major donors.

The tortuous path to 2026 — when Newsom’s term ends — started last year and is among the longest-running electoral battles in America given the immense challenge of nurturing a statewide profile. It’s also a revealing snapshot of California in the 21st century: Candidates are engaged in a race to the left where all of the competition is in the Democratic Party, no political giants are lying in wait and none of the candidates have more than a regional base of support.

“Never has it been more true,” said Bill Wong, a veteran California Democratic operative. “California is its own little nation state.”

These dynamics were on display inside a San Diego museum earlier this year, where Democratic former legislative leader Toni Atkins was announcing her campaign to be the first woman and LGBTQ+ governor before a boisterous crowd of union members.

The scene of orange-vested carpenters mixed among the throng of electrical workers, home care providers and other representatives from the influential world of organized labor irritated state Attorney General Rob Bonta, a likely rival to Atkins. Soon after the January event, Bonta started calling top California union leaders to cross-examine them about their members’ attendance, according to three people familiar with the outreach.

The intensifying clash for the imprimatur of unions — some of the Democratic Party’s most loyal and active footsoldiers — is matched only by the candidates’ need to show their viability through fundraising. In interviews, more than 15 campaign operatives and Capitol insiders described the twin efforts.

A few months after Atkins’ January kickoff, at one of the largest annual fundraisers for the state Senate, she had tongues wagging after being spotted taking meeting after meeting with representatives for special interest groups around the Capitol.

As one Democratic official quipped to POLITICO, Atkins’ tenure as Senate president pro tempore was well past its sell-by date and a new class of leaders had taken over in February. Yet there was Atkins, racing to secure campaign contributions from captive operatives as her colleagues and rivals hoovered just enough details to whisper about. Her term expires later this year.

“This isn’t a race of ideas, yet, or clear distinctions,” said the Democratic official, who was granted anonymity to, well, gossip about early jockeying among the candidates.

An unsettled field

The 2026 governor’s race, a marathon to run the world’s fifth-largest economy, officially commenced on April 24, 2023, when Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis became the first candidate in the field. Her entry came 1,044 days before California’s March 2026 primary election and 561 days before the presidential contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. That contest’s outcome will change the tenor of the following two years.

After Kounalakis’ announcement, Atkins and two more Democrats joined the crowd: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and former Controller Betty Yee. Bonta has said he doesn’t expect to make a decision until after the November election, at which point he still could take an offramp and run for reelection as AG.

In addition, POLITICO last month reported that Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is considering leaving the Biden administration to compete for governor. And Becerra, a former longtime member of Congress from Los Angeles, is doing more than just privately musing — with himself or emissaries already approaching political firms about standing up a campaign.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been reviewing polling data and is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks, said a person briefed on his timeline. Republicans are unlikely to win the office but could play spoiler to Democrats by securing a spot in the November runoff. On the Republican side, Southern California Sheriff Chad Bianco, a conservative fixture on Fox News and an unsparing critic of Newsom, is looking at joining the race, POLITICO also has reported.

The scramble has produced no clear favorite in the mold of Newsom in 2018 or Jerry Brown in 2010 (after Newsom stood down for him that cycle). There are no governors-in-waiting such as Ronald Reagan, who defeated the incumbent Gov. Pat Brown in 1966, or then-Sen. Pete Wilson, who beat Dianne Feinstein in 1990. There also aren’t intimidating shoo-ins like Kamala Harris or Adam Schiff, from California’s 2016 and 2024 Senate races, respectively.

“There is no big behemoth,” said Andrew Acosta, another Democratic consultant based in Sacramento, who is not involved with any of the candidates challenging for governor.

Still, some big personalities loom over the contest, from outgoing Rep. Katie Porter, who was trounced by Schiff in the March primary, to billionaire Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso, to appointed U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler, a favorite of organized labor.

Vice President Kamala Harris has joked to friends that she may return to California to run for governor if Democrats lose the White House this fall, taking a page from Richard Nixon, two people familiar with her remarks said.

“That did not happen,” Harris spokesperson Kirsten Allen told POLITICO in response. “This November, the vice president will be preparing to be inaugurated for the second term of the Biden-Harris administration.”

Sprint for labor

Despite the uncertainty, some organizations looking to put their stamp on 2026 aren’t waiting around. Sal Rosselli, founder and president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, has received commitments from three of the announced candidates to appear at a forum this fall. (Kounalakis has yet to confirm). The event, on Sept. 29 at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, is occurring even before the presidential election.

“I know these four individuals and I respect all of them,” Rosselli said, adding that NUHW’s past forums for governor and Senate generated more than 300 media stories.

The candidates, in turn, feel pressure to attend, in part to help woo some of the Democrats’ most plugged-in activists.

The healthcare workers union is planning to livestream the forum in English and Spanish, after which Rosselli said members will hold a straw poll. That’s a concession of sorts to the unsettled field. In the past, NUHW members voted on an official endorsement directly following their events.

The quick start to the next governor’s race is unique. Newsom’s announcement in 2015 was driven by both external and internal calculations, with the then-lieutenant governor and Harris having to sort out who would run for Senate the following year, and who would compete for governor three years later.

In that governor’s race, Newsom wrapped himself in the nurses union endorsement, helping the moderate former San Francisco mayor lock down the left as the champion of their top priority issue, single-payer health care. And, in a memorable example of how to parlay Sacramento interest group support, he also locked down the doctors’ endorsement, neutralizing pushback that he’d gone too far left.

Rosselli said he isn’t worried about the declared candidates being unable to match the maneuvering and political rizz of Newsom, let alone a Brown or Harris, calling the succession of heavy-hitters from California “extraordinary.”

“Now, we’re looking at the norm,” he said of 2026.

Class of 2026

While there’s no clear favorite, Kounalakis, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary under Barack Obama, has so far garnered the backing of Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer. A top donor with deep ties to San Francisco society before her own 2018 run to be the state’s No. 2, Kounalakis has used the job as a stand-in for Newsom and tried to make inroads with industry and union groups and officials entrenched in Sacramento, where Atkins and Bonta are both well-liked and still better-known figures.

Kounalakis’ union outreach hasn’t always been smooth. She angered Swifties last summer by calling on Taylor Swift to postpone her Los Angeles concerts, in solidarity with striking hotel workers — despite appearing at a Swift concert in Santa Clara.

But she comes from an immensely wealthy family whom many expect will pitch in huge sums for her down the stretch in 2026. All the maneuvering may matter less to her, as well. Even if Kounalakis can’t secure major group support like Newsom did, she’s seen as benefiting from their possible splintering on behalf of multiple rivals — or the organizations staying out of the race entirely before the primary.

Atkins, the former Senate leader and Assembly speaker, has leaned on her years at the Capitol and chipped away support from several power players in her adopted San Diego. The daughter of a coal miner and a seamstress from Appalachia, she notched a much-noticed $36,400 donation from the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council in April, while Bonta is limited by a far lower maximum contribution threshold as AG.

But Bonta does have other advantages. Along with Kounalakis, he has the most coveted title that would appear with his name on the 2026 ballot should he run. California does not allow candidates to use “former,” “ex” or “past” as ballot designations, which makes it harder for Atkins, Becerra and Villaraigosa to show relevance.

Bonta, the first Filipino American to hold his office and the son of farmworker organizers, also has the most powerful day job of the cohort. His calendar is loaded with opportunities to appear on local news broadcasts in the state’s largest media markets. Even after he was peeved about Atkins’ possible incursion into his labor base, Bonta recovered. He scored a prized audience with the California Labor Federation as the featured speaker on the evening before their recent joint legislative conference.

In doing so, Bonta took advantage of the labor fed’s rules that bar announced candidates from speaking to the body unless all of them are given the chance, or before the formal endorsement process commences down the road.

“It’s super early,” said Lorena Gonzalez, the leader of the California Labor Federation, which is made up of some of the state’s most prominent unions. “We have a process that won’t even begin for another year and a half.”

A long run

For many, there’s a dilemma, of sorts, in both how to fill the time, and how to do so in creative ways that get meaningful attention.

Much of that time is occupied raising money, the single-most important metric in the distant election. A strategist to a gubernatorial contender likened the financial scramble to “a big ‘PSYOP’ exercise that the public isn’t tracking — but one that gets insider eyeballs” and pays for itself in multiples down the road.

Bonta’s decision to wait on announcing isn’t without risk. He’s leaving on the table not only money, but the chance for some ambitious associations who want to ingratiate themselves to a winner to leap into the race before he does and make a gamble.

For the others, the sustained attention-getting part can be just as difficult. Kounalakis helped raise large sums for a 2022 ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, a successful push that Atkins also attached herself to. Acosta noted that old strategies like traveling to all of California’s counties no longer cuts it.

“Twenty years ago, you might have gotten a story in the Lodi News-Sentinel,” he said. “Now, you’re probably not going to get anything.”

The attention to money and labor might come from the fact that while California has a primary system where the top-two candidates regardless of party advance, that often hasn’t materialized. Newsom in 2018 and Schiff in 2024 were able to promote a Republican into the November runoff, which takes lots of money, while closing off their opponents’ avenues to their left, so the calculus now is on being the best-funded and top-performing Democrat in the primary.

Meanwhile, Yee and Thurmond are looking for opportunities to stay active, however possible. On Monday, Thurmond blasted out an email trying to get “at least 500 grassroots supporters to help turn the tides by giving VP Harris their endorsement ASAP.”

Thurmond, who is from the East Bay town of Richmond, said he doesn’t think it’s too soon to run for 2026. He pointed to his profile — overcoming poverty and nearly ending up in the foster care system — along with his focus on homelessness, crime and the lack of affordable housing.

“I see myself as a candidate who is different from other candidates. And so what other candidates do has no …” he said, his voice trailing off before getting back on message.

“My job is to outwork everybody, to leave no stone unturned, to talk to all groups to build coalitions, to travel to the diverse parts of the state and to come up with a message that reaches the voters,” he said, “so that people who are struggling to make a living to stay in the state can connect with this campaign.”