Goodbye, competition.

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

California's Hillary Clinton

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Something odd is happening in California, and it replicates something unprecedented happening in politics nationally. California Attorney General Kamala Harris would like to be her state's next U.S. senator. So far, her path to the Democratic nomination in the nation's most populous state appears virtually unimpeded.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton is gearing up for the biggest race of all, seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Clinton is poised to enter the race as the most dominant non-incumbent in modern campaign history. The reticence of her Democratic competitors -- presuming she ultimately acquires a few -- has no corollary in recent decades. Even the sitting vice president in 2000, Al Gore, faced popular former senator Bill Bradley in the primary.

So in the two biggest, most expensive political arenas, Democrats thus far are offering candidates who appear to have no serious competition. Both are women.

That's new.

These singular campaigns aren't due to lack of demand. The presidency is still a pretty plum job, as the Republicans massing at the starting line would surely testify. Meanwhile, in California there hasn't been an open Senate seat since 1992, when both Barbara Boxer, who recently announced she will retire, and Dianne Feinstein were elected. In a state with 39 million people, that kind of political lockdown creates pent-up demand. Yet where are the men?

The 1992 election that elevated Boxer and Feinstein was a landmark, producing such a tidal wave of female empowerment that it earned the moniker "Year of the Woman." The fuss was mostly about the addition of four new females to the Senate. (Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who flamed out, and Patty Murray of Washington, who is still serving, joined Boxer and Feinstein.)

However, those four newbies tripled the Senate's female component: from 2 percent in January 1992 to 6 percent in January 1993. Since then, the number of women in the Senate has steadily increased to 20 -- not terribly high if your goal is equity, but nonetheless promising given the track record of the nation's first two centuries.  

Women have dominated Democratic voting in the post-Reagan era (if only because so many men left the Democratic fold to vote Republican). But the partisan difference is more stark in Congress than at the polls. The Democratic power structure was unabashedly male just a few decades ago. Now, Nancy Pelosi leads the Democrats in the House, where she is arguably the most effective party leader in decades. While in state executive-branch offices, Republican women hold a numerical edge over Democratic women, in the House, Democratic women outnumber Republican women by almost 3 to 1. In the Senate, the ratio is more than 2 to 1.

Harris appears to be on a strangely smooth glide path to join them.

The Los Angeles Times:

In California, meantime, Democrat Kamala Harris continues her cake-walking campaign to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, facing the slightest opposition in what promised, at first, to be an epic fight.

Due to the feeble condition of the California Republican Party -- even in the banner Republican/Tea Party year of 2010, Democrats won every statewide California contest -- obtaining the Democratic nomination in California takes a candidate more than halfway to a Senate seat, especially in a presidential year when turnout is larger. Barring a major scandal or disruption in her campaign, Harris will have a decisive advantage in the general election. So California's Senate tandem appears likely to remain female. This is all the more remarkable because female candidates once struggled to raise money, and California, featuring costly news media markets such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, is the most expensive place in which to mount a statewide campaign.

Harris seems to benefit in part from the interest of her strongest potential rivals in an upcoming gubernatorial run. But if the only credible pretender to Boxer's seat proves to be a woman, it represents a political milestone just the same. In 2002, Republican leaders strongly backed Elizabeth Dole to succeed North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. But Dole was a uniquely pedigreed candidate, by both marriage and career.

Now in her second term as attorney general, Harris doesn't have a former presidential nominee like Bob Dole (or Bill Clinton) for a spouse. But she has California's 21st century demographics on her side. In addition to being female, she is racially mixed -- part South Asian, part black.

Clinton, by contrast, is often deemed overly familiar, a remarkable status for a female frontrunner for the presidency. Her extraordinary gravity in pursuing the biggest, most expensive and most coveted electoral office suggests that, for one major party at least, the final threshold for female leadership is about to be crossed by something close to acclimation. It's as if a glass ceiling is being removed before it can be shattered, sparing the mess.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net