What happens to Kamala Harris's Senate seat?

Jockeying underway for governor's pick
What happens to Kamala Harris's Senate seat if she's elected?
Posted at
and last updated

With President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris projected to take the White House, Harris will have to resign her seat in the U.S. Senate.

The power to fill that seat would fall to Governor Gavin Newsom, and the political jockeying for his pick is well underway.

“This is one of the best jobs in American politics, one of the most prominent jobs in American politics and every California political leader wants it,” said UC San Diego political science chair Thad Kousser.

Kousser expects Newsom will want to make history with the diversity of his pick, should he have the opportunity.

Others are thinking along the same lines. Groups like Equality California have sent the governor a list of their preferred LGBTQ candidates, which would be a first for California.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez tweeted out her own list Friday of Latino candidates, another potential first for the state.

“We are the largest demographic in this state, and growing,” she wrote. “It’s time we have a Latino/a US Senator.”

Political analyst Laura Fink says the governor is going to have to balance a lot of competing interests.

“First and foremost, what's going to be best for California? And then of course, what's going to be best for Governor Newsom moving forward as he looks toward his political ambitions,” Fink said, referring to the possibility that Newsom could run for president.

There have been dozens of names floated as potential picks, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Both are sons of Mexican immigrants who would be the first Latino senators in California history.

But don’t pencil either in just yet, according to Fink.

“Kamala Harris is leaving one of only 26 women in the Senate. That's one out of four. Last time I checked, [women] are north of 50 percent of the population. So that is something that will need to come into consideration,” she said.

Rep. Karen Bass is another top contender. She’s the head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

There’s also State Senator Toni Atkins of San Diego, who could also make history as California’s first openly gay senator.

“She's been the first a lot of times,” Fink said. “First lesbian Speaker of the State Assembly. First Madam President Pro Tem of the State Senate. This would be another first for her should she ascend to that seat.”

Atkins declined to say if she was interested in the job or being vetted.

“Right now, my focus is on the work before us, and the path ahead of us," she said in a statement to ABC 10News.

Atikins said she was “focused on the outcome of the election and our state Senate races, looking forward to a Biden/Harris administration, and continuing our work here in California.”

The power to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat comes from the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. States have their own laws that shape the process.

Five states require Senate vacancies to be filled by a special election. Nine states allow the governor to appoint a replacement, but require a special election shortly after.

The remaining 36 states, including California, allow governors to appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of the term.

Newsom’s pick would serve out the remaining two years on Harris’s term, then go up for reelection in 2022 as an incumbent. Incumbency carries significant advantages in name recognition, fundraising and image, said Kousser.

“You are getting that news coverage. Somebody is probably playing you on Saturday Night Live for two years, and that elevates you above all the other contenders,” he said.

With California a reliably blue state, experts say Newsom’s pick could hold the job for decades.