WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Barbara Boxer's decision not to seek re-election to a fifth term provides a rare opening for ambitious California Democrats who have been waiting patiently to move up the political ranks.
Boxer, 74, and her Senate colleague, Dianne Feinstein, 81, won election to the Senate in 1992 and have pretty much had a lock on their jobs for as long as they have wanted to keep them. Another venerable Democrat is Gov. Jerry Brown, 76, who was just sworn in for a record fourth term, including two in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The number of Democratic rock stars that have been sitting on the bench is becoming longer and longer," said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles. "Now, I think a lot of these folks are ready to bring their brand to a larger stage."
Among the Democrats who might try to succeed Boxer: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor; state Attorney General Kamala Harris; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and Tom Steyer, a retired San Francisco hedge fund billionaire who sought to make climate change an issue in the midterm elections.
While lauding Boxer in prepared statements, none of the potential candidates indicated a possible Senate run.
Democratic Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Adam Schiff are also considered names to watch.
Boxer made it clear she felt no pressure to make room for a new generation of Democrats.
"I don't think it's fair to say because you reached a certain age, it's time to retire," she said during a telephone call with reporters.
Still, she said she wanted to announce her decision early enough in the election cycle to give potential successors plenty of time to organize.
"I don't know if one person will come forward or 15 will come forward," Boxer said.
Boxer has been a staunch supporter of abortion rights, gun control and environmental protections. She has said she is most proud of the vote that she cast against the war in Iraq, but also told reporters Thursday that she wished she had done more to galvanize opposition.
"It just weighs on me," she said.
Political observers say Boxer's work to protect the environment is one of her legacies. Boxer authored legislation that has designated more than 1 million acres of land in California as wilderness, a classification that generally does not allow for motor vehicles, new roads and mining. She also led efforts to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
However, she has failed to help pass meaningful legislation to curb global warming, a longtime goal that became even more distant when Republicans won control of the Senate and Boxer lost her prized role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Boxer was elected to the House in 1982 and to the Senate one decade later. That was an election that marked a watershed year for women in politics, with four winning U.S. Senate seats.
Boxer would have been a prohibitive favorite to win re-election in a state where only 28 percent of the registered voters are Republicans. In California's open primary system, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party.
Republicans view the retirement as positive for the 2016 elections in part because it could mean that Democrats will have to spend money to retain the seat, which they probably would not have done if Boxer were in the race. Still, it would be a huge upset if a Republican were to win.
"A California Republican starts every statewide race 15 points behind and is competing against arguably the most effective state political party in the country," said Republican strategist Aaron McLear.
Elections in California are hugely expensive and could require Republicans to side with a candidate able to fund his or her own campaign, such as Rep. Darrell Issa or business executive Carly Fiorina, who lost to Boxer in her last race and is weighing a run for president. An aide said Issa had no plans to run for the Senate.
One potential Republican candidate is Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who ran a competitive race for state controller last year. Her spokesman, Tim Clark, said the mayor had preliminary discussions about the possibility of running for Boxer's seat and will revisit the issue now that she has announced her retirement. Swearengin cannot run again for Fresno mayor in 2016 because of term limits.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Donna Cassata in Washington and Fenit Nirappil in Sacramento contributed to this report.