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The California Senate scramble: who might be in, and who’s out

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D) announced on Thursday that she wouldn't run for another term in 2016 — setting up California's first open-seat Senate contest since 1992. The nation's most populous state is filled with ambitious Democrats who'd love a promotion, and its "top-two" primary system makes a general election contest between two Democrats look quite possible. Here's a rundown of the top contenders, others who may run, and the people who reportedly aren't interested.

The heavyweights: Harris, Newsom, and Villaraigosa

Harris and Newsom 2

Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. (Valerie Macon / Getty, Neilson Barnard / Getty)

Speculation immediately focused on two prominent California Democrats — Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris, long viewed as party rising stars. The buzz, however, is that they're unlikely to both run for Senate. The governor's office will open up in 2018, when incumbent Jerry Brown is term limited. If either Newsom or Harris announces a bid, he or she will immediately be viewed as the frontrunner.

Third here would be Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles. He's been out of politics for a few years, but a source told Jonathan Allen of Bloomberg Politics that Villaraigosa is "seriously considering" a run.

The billionaire: Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer (Charley Gallay / Getty)

While many Democrats with local power bases in California might like to run for Senate, the vastness of the state means campaigning there is hugely expensive. That's why billionaire Tom Steyer — who is "pondering" a run for the seat, according to Seema Mehta of the LA Timesis in a class of his own.

After becoming vastly wealthy in finance, Steyer turned his attention to environmental issues — especially stopping climate change. He's played a key role in the campaign against the Keystone XL Pipeline, and was the individual who spent the most on the 2014 elections, according to what's been disclosed (he gave entirely to Democrats). A Senate seat could give Steyer even more of a national platform to push his causes — if people will vote for him, that is.

The rest

There are currently 39 Democratic members of Congress in California, and many other state government officials and big city mayors who'd love to win a top statewide office. It's unclear now which will choose to mount what's sure to be an expensive and difficult campaign. But members of Congress who might be interested include Xavier Becerra, John Garamendi, Adam Schiff, Jackie Speier, and Loretta Sanchez. Treasurer John Chiang and Secretary of State Alex Padilla could be potentially formidable among statewide officials. Check Daily Kos Elections for an even longer list of candidates, courtesy of Jeff Singer.

As for the Republicans, the party has performed dreadfully in recent California elections, so the pickings are slim. The Sacramento Bee lists some possibilities here, including Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin and former Congressman Doug Ose. It's also possible that a self-funder enters the race, as with the unsuccessful bids of Meg Whitman for governor and Carly Fiorina for Senate in 2010.

Reportedly not running

Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. (Jun Sato / WireImage / Getty)

There's been some speculation about whether Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, might have political ambitions. But, again according to the Times' Seema Mehta (whose twitter feed is a must-follow if you're interested in the race), sources close to Sandberg have said she's not interested in the Senate seat.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also confirmed that he's not running. He is thought to have his eye on the 2018 governor's race instead. For the Republicans, Condoleezza RiceArnold Schwarzenegger, and Darrell Issa have all reportedly said they won't run.

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