TIME democrats

Former Maryland Governor O’Malley Won’t Seek Mikulski’s Seat

Outgoing Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and wife Katie at the inauguration ceremony of Governor Larry Hogan in Annapolis, Md. on Jan. 21, 2015.
Linda Davidson—The Washington Post/Getty Images Outgoing Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and wife Katie at the inauguration ceremony of Governor Larry Hogan in Annapolis, Md. on Jan. 21, 2015.

The move keeps his path to the White House open

(WASHINGTON) — Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Tuesday he will not seek the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, keeping open his option of running for president in a Democratic primary likely to include Hillary Rodham Clinton.

O’Malley said in a statement he was “hopeful and confident that very capable public servants with a desire to serve in the Senate will step up as candidates for this important office. I will not be one of them.”

Mikulski announced plans to retire on Monday, giving O’Malley a second option if he wanted to avoid what looks today to be a longshot bid against Clinton. The surprise decision came as O’Malley has been gearing up toward a presidential campaign with upcoming appearances in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Little known outside his home state, O’Malley has yet to gain much traction in a hypothetical matchup against Clinton, who has a network of super PACs already working on her behalf and much of the party’s establishment eagerly waiting for her to announce her candidacy. Those pining for someone other than Clinton have largely focused their longing not on O’Malley, but Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who tells everyone who asks she isn’t running.

O’Malley has deep ties to Mikulski. While in law school, he served as field director on her first Senate campaign in 1986 and his mother Barbara has worked as a receptionist in Mikulski’s Washington office since 1987. Yet the retiring senator has already endorsed Clinton.

O’Malley would have likely been the leading contender if he had pursued a Senate bid in a state where Democrats have a large voter registration advantage. But the Democratic field could be large and include members of the state’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, along with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former Montgomery County, Md., council member and O’Malley appointee.

Before the announcement, O’Malley allies noted that the former governor had always enjoyed the role of executive, having served as Baltimore’s mayor for seven years before becoming governor in 2007. He has shown little interest in the past in serving in Congress.

O’Malley has said he will make a final decision on a presidential campaign this spring. He is scheduled to headline fundraisers and appearances in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday and has separate trips to Iowa planned for March and April.

During an appearance in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Saturday, he took a veiled shot at Clinton, warning Democrats that more “triangulation” would not be a successful strategy for the party. And he suggested large financial institutions should be broken up if they pose a threat to the American economy, something Warren has called for.

“People want to see new faces. There’s a certain amount of Clinton fatigue,” said Dan Calegari, a New Hampshire Democratic activist who first met O’Malley in 1983 when both worked on Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. “They’ve been around for 30 years now. Quite honestly, I think if Martin decides to get in the race he will surprise some people.”

Calegari was organizing a small meeting of party activists with O’Malley in Manchester, N.H., on Friday night.

Even as an underdog, there is a place for O’Malley in the presidential race, Hart said.

“I am not in favor of coronations and I’m certainly not in favor of the preordination of two families in America who can govern,” Hart said. “I think it would be healthy for the Democratic party to have competition.”

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Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/kthomasdc

TIME 2016 Election

Barbara Mikulski, Longest-Serving Woman in Congress, to Retire

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Bill Clark—AP Senator Barbara Mikulsk (D., Md.) speaks with reporters as she arrives for the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on Dec. 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

The Maryland Senator's retirement in 2016 leaves a gaping hole in the state's Democratic power structure

Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who has served in Congress for nearly 40 years, will retire from her current position as U.S. Senator at the end of her term in 2016.

“I had to decide whether to spend my time fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job. Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs?” she said at a Monday press conference announcing her decision. She vowed to continue to work to pass legislation in the Senate for the remainder of her term.

Mikulski, 78, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1977 before moving to the Senate in 1987. She was the first woman to chair the influential Appropriations Committee, a coveted position given the committee’s oversight over hundreds of billions of dollars of discretionary spending.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who entered the Senate the same year as Mikulski, praised his Maryland counterpart as a “trailblazer”:

“Senator Barbara Mikulski’s career has been devoted to serving others,” he said in a statement. “As Dean of the women of the Senate, Barbara has been a mentor and friend to Senators on both sides of the aisle. Through her work, she has helped a generation of women leaders rise in the Senate.”

The departure of one of the most revered figures in Maryland politics leaves a gaping hole in the state’s Democratic power structure. A slew of members of the House may vie for her seat. It also may have implications for the 2016 presidential race if Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, opts to run for the Senate seat instead of challenging Hillary Clinton.

TIME Congress

Why Congress Is Feuding With Obama Over the Homeland Security Budget

Jeh Johnson Holds News Conference On DHS Appropriations Bill
Alex Wong—Getty Images U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson pauses during a news conference February 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama warned a gathering of state governors on Monday that the Department of Homeland Security would furlough tens of thousands of employees nationwide if Congress failed to replenish the agency’s funds by Friday.

“We can’t afford to play politics with our national security,” Obama said during a winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

But the political fight over Homeland Security funding shows no signs of letting up due to the hot-button politics of immigration. That was made clear Monday evening when a procedural vote that needs at least 60 senators to avoid the threat of a filibuster fell too short, with just 47 in support and 46 against. Here’s a refresher on how lawmakers got to this point:

Where’s the spending bill?

A bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security passed the House last month, with one essential caveat: None of the money could be used to implement Obama’s executive order to defer deportations of some 5 million undocumented immigrants. Imposed by House Republicans, that restriction is a non-starter for Senate Democrats, who have blocked the bill.

What happens if the agency doesn’t receive funding by Friday?

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the department would run out of funds by Friday, forcing it to furlough upwards of 30,000 DHS employees. Employees deemed essential to national security, who make up roughly 80 percent of the workforce, will continue to work without paychecks.

Are there any signs of compromise on the horizon?

Several prominent Republicans, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have broken rank in recent days, urging their counterparts to fund the agency without restraints and let the immigration fight play out in the courtroom. Last week, a Texas judge temporarily suspended Obama’s executive orders and ruled that states could challenge the administration’s immigration policy in court.

McCain hailed the decision as an “exit sign” for lawmakers, though lawmakers have yet to steer toward this off ramp in significant number. They may choose to punt on the issue instead, releasing a temporary spurt of funding for Homeland Security while girding for another round of debate.

TIME 2014 Election

Democrats Call for Focus on Narrative, White Voters After 2014 Losses

President Obama speaks as Democratic National Committee Chair and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Vice Chair for Voter Registration and Participation Donna Brazile share a moment during the General Session of the 2015 DNC Winter Meeting, Feb. 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images President Obama speaks as Democratic National Committee Chair and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Vice Chair for Voter Registration and Participation Donna Brazile share a moment during the General Session of the 2015 DNC Winter Meeting, Feb. 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.

The party chair calls a new report "tough love"

The Democratic Party’s autopsy of its devastating defeat in 2014 calls for a renewed focus on the party’s message and winning back white Southern voters.

In preliminary findings unveiled Saturday at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, a task force studied the party’s defeats in 2010 and 2014—despite its victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential years. It called for the creation of a “National Narrative Project” to help the party develop a message that can survive in midterm election years.

“This morning we’re going to hear some tough love, and frankly we need to hear it,” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the DNC.

“It is strongly believed that the Democratic Party is loosely understood as a long list of policy statements and not as people with a common set of core values (fairness, equality, opportunity),” the report found. “This lack of cohesive narrative impedes the party’s ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.”

The report, developed by party leaders and operatives, encourages Democrats to develop a three-cycle plan to increase representation in state legislatures for the purposes of the 2020 redistricting cycle. Republican gains in states in 2010 led to gerrymandering in their favor in the last decennial redrawing of congressional district lines, and further gains in 2014 made the Democrats’ challenge to reverse the trend all the greater.

“The Task Force recommends that the DNC—along with the Democratic family of organizations, state parties and allied organizations—create and resource a three-cycle plan that targets and wins back legislative chambers in order to prepare for redistricting efforts,” the document states.

The report also calls on the party to continue pushing for right-to-vote legislation, as well as step up efforts nationwide to recruit candidates at local and state levels to build the next generation of party leaders. Additionally, it calls on the party to continue to study why voters drop-off from presidential years to midterm elections, resulting in a more favorable playing field for the GOP, as well as ways to prevent the hemorrhaging of white voters .

“In order to win elections, the Democratic Party must reclaim voters that we’ve lost including white Southern voters,” the report states. The topic was a subject of discussion Thursday during a meeting of state party chairs, led by South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison. On Saturday, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who chaired the task force, faulted the party for having “a single-minded electoral strategy” focused on White house and said, “the Democratic Party has lost its way.”

Republicans reacted skeptically.

“The first step toward fixing a problem is admitting that you have one, but it’s clear the DNC isn’t willing to come to terms with why their party lost in historic fashion last November,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in a statement. “The reality is their divisive message doesn’t resonate and their liberal policies don’t work. And after years of neglect from President Obama, his chosen heir Hillary Clinton will be inheriting a cash-strapped national party teetering on the edge of complete irrelevancy.”

The task force included DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, former Obama digital director Teddy Goff, lawyer Marc Elias, Beshear, and operative Maria Cardona.

The full report is due to be release in May.

TIME 2016 Election

Why Democrats Chose Philadelphia as Site of 2016 Convention

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Democrat
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, speaks at the DNC's Leadership Forum Issues Conference in Washington on Sept. 19, 2014.

The City of Brotherly Love beats out Columbus and Brooklyn

In a pick that melds political calculations and historical resonance, the Democratic Party on Thursday announced that it had selected Philadelphia as the site of its 2016 national convention.

One of three finalists to host the convention, Philadelphia edged Brooklyn and Columbus, Ohio, for the honor. In a statement, party officials pointed to the city’s status as a cradle of American democracy as well as the logistical infrastructure to pull off a massive event in which thousands converge to celebrate the official nomination of the party’s presidential candidate.

“In addition to their commitment to a seamless and safe convention, Philadelphia’s deep-rooted place in American history provides a perfect setting for this special gathering,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. A contract with the city to host the event was signed Thursday morning.

Party officials calculated that staging the event in Philadelphia could give Democrats a boost in a vital state that Republicans are hoping to contest in 2016. Pennsylvania is more blue than purple: Barack Obama won it twice, as did defeated nominees John Kerry and Al Gore. But with 20 electoral votes, the Keystone State is a battleground the party cannot afford to lose. And it is filled with the white middle-class voters that form a cornerstone of Democratic nomination front runner Hillary Clinton’s coalition. Democrats believe that hosting the convention in the Philadelphia media market will help showcase their message to such voters.

A walkable city with mass transit and a plethora of hotel rooms, the City of Brotherly Love boasts the amenities needed to absorb the influx of visitors. “The only three factors that we considered when deciding which was the strongest city to host our convention were logistics, security and resources,” Wasserman Schultz said on a conference call Thursday afternoon. “Extraneous issues were not a factor, whatsoever.” Yet Philadelphia lacked the potential drawbacks of its competitors.

As the capital of the vital swing state of Ohio, Columbus was an appealing option to party officials. But as the smallest city among the finalists, there were concerns about whether it had the hotels to host the event, as well as whether the Republicans’ decision to hold their 2016 convention in Cleveland would sap the state’s finite supply of cash.

A lack of accommodations in the immediate vicinity was also a concern about Brooklyn. One plan relied on transporting guests from their hotel rooms in Manhattan to the convention at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center via ferry, which seemed a sure logistical nightmare. And in recent months, says a Democrat familiar with the process, the party’s selection committee grew increasingly concerned about the tension between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s police force. Selecting New York as the site of the convention would have trained a spotlight on de Blasio, a controversial liberal, during a week when the party’s prime mission is to reach the swing voters who can shape the fate of elections.

The convention will take place the week of July 25, about a month earlier than four years ago. As in 2012, it will immediately follow the Republican convention in Cleveland. The back-to-back scheduling is designed to counter the bump in the polls that parties traditionally accrue from the nationally televised spectacle.

— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Faces Challenge in Congress on ISIS War Powers

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Homeland Security on Feb. 2, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Obama is poised in coming days to ask Congress for new authority to use U.S. military force against ISIS

(WASHINGTON) — Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress will face some resistance to a vote to authorize President Barack Obama’s war against Islamic State militants despite international outrage over video of militants beheading their captives and burning one alive.

War authorizations are among the most difficult issues to confront members of Congress. Several Democrats will be reluctant to approve new war powers unless there is a clear deadline or some way to pay for the military operation. Some Republicans, strong foes of the president, will object to giving Obama the authority.

Obama is poised in coming days to ask Congress for new authority to use U.S. military force against IS, the White House said Thursday. But the top House Republican warned it won’t be easy to pass the measure. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it will be up to the president to rally support from lawmakers and the public.

“His actions are going to be an important part of trying for us to get the votes to actually pass an authorization,” Boehner said Thursday. “This is not going to be an easy lift.”

In the U.S. battle against IS, Obama has been relying on congressional authorizations that President George W. Bush used to justify military action after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Critics say the White House’s use of post-9/11 congressional authorizations is a legal stretch at best.

Obama has insisted that he had the legal authority to send U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces, and to launch airstrikes since September against targets in Iraq and Syria. Now, the administration wants to get a new so-called Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, with bipartisan support from Congress.

“The president believes it sends a very powerful signal to the American people, to our allies, and even to our enemies, that the United States of America is united behind this strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Republicans generally want a broader authorization of military action against the militants than Democrats have been willing to consider. Obama has said he does not intend to deploy U.S. combat troops, though many Republicans believe that option ought to be available.

“I have always believed that when it comes to fighting a war that Congress should not tie the president’s hands,” Boehner said.

Currently, there are 2,378 U.S. forces in Iraq conducting training, advising and assisting Iraqi forces at the brigade and headquarters levels and doing security.

Earnest declined to discuss specific provisions being considered, such as how long the authorization will last, what geographical areas it will cover and whether it will allow for ground troops. He said details are still being worked out with lawmakers from both parties.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said talks with the administration are focusing on an authorization that would last three years, with other issues still being debated. Pelosi told journalists it will be a challenge for Democrats, the White House and Republicans to forge an agreement, but that she ultimately expects one to be reached.

“I’m not saying anybody’s come to an agreement on it,” Pelosi said. “I think it’s going to be a challenge, but we will have it.”

Pelosi said she hopes Congress will repeal the 2002 congressional authorization for the war in Iraq but retain the 2001 authorization for military action in Afghanistan. Earnest said the White House also supports repeal of the Iraq authorization replaced by the new authorization.

Late last year, Secretary of State John Kerry said whatever new authorization Congress passes should not limit U.S. military action to Iraq and Syria or prevent the president from deploying ground troops if he later deems them necessary. He also said that if the new authorization had a time limit, there should be a provision for it to be renewed.

Islamic State militants released a grisly video this week of a Jordanian Air Force pilot being burned alive inside a cage. Pelosi said that the U.S. should “move quickly” to steer military aid to Jordan, which has stepped up a campaign against the militants, including a series of airstrikes in Syria.

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, already introduced authorization legislation rather than wait for Obama’s version. His bill would authorize the use of force against IS in Iraq and Syria for three years, but prohibit the use of ground forces in a combat mission in either nation. He has said if the president later decided to deploy ground troops, he could return to Congress to ask for new authority.

“It is my hope that the administration will be willing to accept important limits in a new authorization as well as the sunset or repeal of the old AUMFs, as this will be necessary to ensure strong bipartisan support and meet the goals the president set last summer of refining and repealing the prior authorizations,” Schiff said in a statement Thursday.

___

Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

TIME Congress

Republicans Look to Gain on Obama’s Education Blunder

John Boehner Holds Media Briefing At The Capitol
Drew Angerer—Getty Images Speaker of the House John Boehner takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.

On Tuesday, President Obama dropped his proposal to reform popular college savings plans. On Wednesday, Republicans wouldn’t let him hear the end of it.

“I’m not sure why President Obama would have sought to undermine them in the first place, but it’s certainly good to see the President coming around to Republicans’ pro-middle class view on this matter,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the chamber floor.

“What crazy tax hike scheme will the White House dream up next,” tweeted House Speaker John Boehner.

“Well, that must have polled badly,” taunted the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board.

The proposal—ending a tax break for mostly wealthy families and redistributing the billion dollars saved towards tax breaks for the less well-off—was a part of a broader plan but so politically perilous that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi pressed the President to drop it while aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Wednesday that the proposal was a “distraction” and dropped because it could “jeopardize” a larger education strategy that included $50 billion in tax reforms and a plan to make two years of community college free.

But Republicans will keep the issue in the spotlight. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a member of the House GOP leadership, introduced a bill this week with Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind to strengthen the nearly 12 million savings accounts, which are known as 529s. Americans accumulated nearly $245 billion in the plans last year, according to the Investment Company Institute.

“These are particularly important goals as college costs continue to rise and students struggle with extreme amounts of student loan debt,” says Jenkins, who notes that there is a “spotlight” on the issue due to the president’s “misstep.” “We certainly are going to call on him to support [the bill.]”

The bill aims to reduce paperwork, allow students to withdraw from college without a refund penalty and updates the current law by including computers as a qualified expense. Jenkins says that she expects the bill to hit the House floor in a month.

Kind says that the Administration could have done a better job of educating members of its plans ahead of the State of the Union.

“This has become a trusted vehicle for education savings and therefore calling for the tax benefit elimination from 529s seems to be a giant step too far,” he says.

Kind laughed when asked if he thought Republicans would use the President’s fumble to their own political advantage.

“It’s the world in which we live,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s what makes entitlement reform so hard. When you have people honestly trying to put forward some straightforward provisions only to be attacked by the right or the left. That’s what makes developing consensus very difficult.”

TIME Budget

Government Budget Cuts Are Hitting ‘Red’ States Hardest, Say Analysts

A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington
JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN —REUTERS A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 30, 2013, approximately one hour before the U.S. federal government partially shut down after lawmakers failed to compromise on an emergency spending bill

Experts suggest the discrepancy may point to the politicalization of public spending

Recent governmental budget cuts have not been distributed evenly with slashed spending hitting pro-Republican states the hardest, according to new analysis by Reuters.

Funding for a range of discretionary grant programs has fallen 40% in Republican states compared to a drop of only 25% in swing states or states that tend to support the Democrats, claims the news agency.

“I would suggest these numbers would tell us there is politicization going on,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, who helped Reuters analyze the federal spending.

The money that the government allocates to discretionary spending goes to initiatives like the Head Start preschool education scheme and anti-drugs programs.

Read more on the study at Reuters

TIME 2016 Election

Steyer Won’t Run for California Senate Seat

Tom Steyer is on the TIME 100
Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images Steyer is one of several TIME 100 honorees fighting for the planet

The Democrats' top donor takes a pass on the race to succeed Barbara Boxer

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer announced Thursday that he won’t run for the California Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

“Given the imperative of electing a Democratic president — along with my passion for our state — I believe my work right now should not be in our nation’s capitol but here at home in California, and in states around the country where we can make a difference,” Steyer wrote in an op-ed published in the Huffington Post.

The decision will cheer Democrats. The former hedge-fund manager emerged as the party’s counterweight to the billionaire Koch Brothers in the 2014 midterms, spending some $75 million through his political-action committee, NextGen Climate. His flirtation with a Senate bid spooked party operatives, who feared Steyer could plow his fortune into self-funding his own campaign rather than those of other Democrats.

Privately, many Democrats have been urging Steyer not to run, arguing his efforts and money would be better spent outside a deep-blue state where the party has several strong candidates capable of holding the seat.

“This was a very hard decision,” Steyer said. “The U.S. Senate offers a unique opportunity to serve, but I also know that we will have excellent candidates. I applaud and respect those running, and am confident that Californians will choose a representative who will serve them well.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris declared her candidacy last week after Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would not seek the seat as he prepares to run for governor in 2018. Harris has already secured endorsements from progressive Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has expressed interest in the seat, but has not made a decision yet.

Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling to identify a candidate willing to mount a longshot campaign in such an expensive state. California’s jungle primary system pits the top two finishers against each other in the general election regardless of party.

Steyer said he would “redouble my efforts working with partners and fellow citizens to push for change. The road we take may be less traveled and less well-marked, but I am very determined. The journey is far from over — in fact, it has just begun.”

TIME 2016 Election

Democrats Scramble for California Senate Seat

Tom Steyer Kamala Harris
AP/Getty Images Left: Tom Steyer; Right: Kamala Harris

One rising star is in, another is out, and a billionaire donor is weighing a bid of his own

The retirement of California Senator Barbara Boxer has touched off a furious scramble among Democrats jostling to replace her, with one rising star jumping into the race and several other veteran candidates publicly weighing whether to run.

Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, laid down an early marker in the pricey, high-stakes contest by announcing Tuesday that she will run for the seat being vacated by Boxer, who said last week that she won’t run for a fifth term in the Senate in 2016.

“I will be a fighter for middle-class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity,” Harris said in a message launching her campaign. “I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.”

The top law-enforcement official in the nation’s most populous state, Harris, 50, is considered among the Democratic Party’s rising stars. In normal contests, the entry of a glittering recruit into the race might prompt party kingpins to coalesce around her candidacy. But this is California, the country’s leading liberal redoubt, a state whose sluggish political turnover has yielded a long list of seasoned politicians patiently waiting for their shot. Harris may be the front-runner, but she won’t coast to the Senate without a challenge.

It won’t come from Gavin Newsom, however. The state’s lieutenant governor said this week that he will pass on a campaign to succeed Boxer; instead he may mount a bid to succeed Golden State Governor Jerry Brown in 2018. Newsom’s decision spared California Democrats a collision between two of the state’s top politicians, whose bases of support and spheres of influence overlap.

Several other Democratic veterans are publicly mulling a campaign. One is former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose ties in the Hispanic community and links to party donors — forged partly through a stint at the helm of the Democratic National Committee — would make him a contender for the seat. California Representative Loretta Sanchez, who has served in Congress since 1997, has also said that she is seriously considering a run.

“With strong candidates like Kamala Harris, Democrats remain confident that we’ll hold this seat and continue Barbara Boxer’s long history of fighting for California,” says Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The DSCC will continue to monitor the California Senate race closely.”

The billion-dollar question hanging over the contest is whether one of the nation’s leading donors decides to mount a campaign himself. Tom Steyer, the retired hedge-fund magnate, has emerged in recent years as the Democratic Party’s most generous donor. In 2014, he shelled out some $74 million to candidates, mostly through a political-action committee dedicated to bringing the issue of climate change to the political forefront. Now Steyer is thinking about whether the next campaign he backs should be his own.

“Holding office is a sacred trust in our society, and I am honored that so many colleagues and friends have encouraged me to consider entering this race,” Steyer wrote in an essay for the Huffington Post. “Washington needs to be shaken up, and we need climate champions who will fight for the next generation. California Democrats are blessed to have a deep bench of talent, and I will decide soon based on what I think is the best way to continue the hard work we’ve already started together to prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity.”

The post can be read as a sign that Steyer is preparing to jump in. In recent days, he has met with advisers, polled voters and snatched up campaign website domains, according to reports. But it is also a vigorous defense of his political-action committee, NextGen Climate, which lost the majority of the races it contested last fall and which Steyer told TIME in November he would continue to build.

Steyer’s money and influence would make him an instant force in the race, but it would offer no guarantee of success. A series of California business tycoons, from Meg Whitman to Michael Huffington, have self-funded lavish campaigns only to learn their largesse has limits at the polls. And despite the appreciation his generosity his bought, many Democrats are surely hoping he won’t run. In 2014, Steyer was the largest individual donor in the U.S. If he writes those checks to himself instead, it would be a blow to candidates across the country. An ally of Steyer declined to comment on his decision-making process.

The contest, expected to be the year’s most expensive, also feature a local wrinkle. In 2012, California jettisoned the traditional party primary system in favor of an open contest in which the top two vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. If two strong Democratic candidates opt to run in the primary, they could face each other once again in the general election — during which the state’s Republicans and independents would play a major role in picking the winner.

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