Political Landscape Opens Door for Independent in 2016 Calif. Senate Race

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) decision not to run for re-election in 2016 was kept under wraps until she decided to announce her intentions in early January in a YouTube message sent out to supporters. Even her good friend, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), expressed her shock and emotion over the announcement when she found out during a press conference.

Almost immediately after Boxer’s announcement was made public, speculation spread like wildfire over who would enter the race for the open U.S. Senate seat. IVN contributor James Ryan catalogued the race of possible contenders that quickly expressed interest in replacing Boxer, who was first elected in 1992.

However, with so many names that have either entered the race already or have expressed interest in running, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and former State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, is there an opening for an independent candidate to enter what is expected to be an “outrageously expensive” election?

Money will be the biggest obstacle for any candidate outside the major parties, but demographics in California are changing, and the makeup of the electorate is shifting.

When Boxer first won her seat, her election marked a huge victory for female representation in Congress. However, during her first campaign, approximately 80 percent of voters in the election were white. Since then, California has steadily seen an increase in diversity within the state.

Money will be the biggest obstacle for any candidate outside the major parties, but demographics in California are changing.
Debbie Sharnak, IVN contributor
For example, Latinos surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites living in California in 2014 to become the state’s largest racial or ethnic population at 39 percent. This effect on elections has not yet been thoroughly cataloged since only 17 percent of Latinos are considered likely to vote.

In addition, the Public Policy Institute of California noted that while most Latinos tend to be Democrats, a large proportion lean politically conservative which could make a 2016 election particularly interesting for any candidate attempting to run under a party label. To this diverse and growing population, an independent candidate that can mobilize these voters has a good chance of making headway in the election.

Independents have a chance to really capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the political parties at a statewide level. While voter registration has increased in the past 5 years, those who register with a political party has declined. Democrats have decreased to 43 percent of the electorate while Republicans now only make up 28 percent.

At the same time, the number of independent voters (those registered under No Party Preference) has increased to approximately 23 percent of the registered electorate. As independent registration continues to climb at a steady pace, No Party Preference voters may end up outnumbering Republicans by 2024.

The election will not only be the first open Senate seat in two decades, it will be the first open Senate seat under California’s top-two primary, where all voters and candidates participate on a single primary ballot. The increased competitiveness of an open seat in a nonpartisan primary with a more politically diverse electorate may open the door wide enough for a high-profile independent candidate to take one of the two spots in the November election.

However, if the race reaches the $1-billion threshold that some analysts are predicting, the emphasis may be on “high profile.” No matter what, it will be an interesting race to follow.