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What’s next for Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris is in the national news following President Obama's comments about her good looks during a fundraiser near San Francisco on Thursday.

While being at the center of a controversy over how the President views women isn't the way Harris likely wanted to make it into the national conversation, this moment affords us the chance to break down what the political future holds for the California Attorney General.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris

Harris has experienced a rapid rise in California politics. In 2003, Harris was elected as the first female district attorney in the history of San Francisco and was re-elected four years later. In 2010, she was elected as California's Attorney General -- narrowly edging out Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Harris got a turn in the national spotlight in 2012 when she was picked to speak at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina.  Her speech was something of a flop; "[Harris'] delivery was low-key and the crowd seemed unsure of when to clap even during her most obvious applause lines," we wrote at the time.

Convention speech aside, Harris remains the brightest star in Democratic political circles in California. (She has replaced Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in that position -- but more on that below.)

So, what's next for Harris?  With re-election to a second term virtually assured in 2014 -- this is California after all and Harris is a Democrat), most people expect her to move up the statewide political food chain in either 2016 or 2018.

"Kamala will be a strong candidate for Governor after Jerry [Brown] or [Barbara] Boxer's seat in 2016," said one senior Democratic operative with a long history in California politics. "Attorney General is the one downballot office in California where where you can get regular serious media attention."

Let's more closely analyze both races.

* Governor: Jerry Brown, the sort of default governor for California over the past four decades seems on the glide path to a second term in 2014. Brown is 74 years old and has yet to make a formal declaration of his plans to run for re-election but seems very likely to do so. (Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is an intriguing candidate for Republicans but would face an uphill climb due to the Democratic nature of the state.)

Assuming Brown runs and wins -- by far the most likely outcome -- the governor's seat will be open in 2018. (California has a two-term limit on its governors.)  The Democratic primary could be a very crowded affair with Newsom, who ran against Brown before dropping out in 2009, already making clear that he is planning another bid for the top job whenever it comes open. Outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also interested in statewide office and an open governor's seat would be very appealing to him. Harris would, obviously, be a major player in the governor's race if she wanted to run but would compete for dollars and northern California Democrats with Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco.

* Senate: Boxer will be in her mid 70s when she is up for another term in 2016.  If she decides to step aside, the nomination is likely Harris' for the taking with Newsom (and likely Villaraigosa) focused far more on the governor's race.  Harris wouldn't likely have the primary field to herself -- there are lots of ambitious members of the California Congressional delegation -- but her statewide profile and national image would ensure that she was the best known and likely best funded candidate in the field.

* President: There is a theory that Harris could make the big leap to run for president in 2016.  If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stay out of the race, Harris could well be the only woman and the only African American candidate in the field. (Emphasis on "could".) That's a powerful set of distinguishing characteristics -- particularly in a Democratic presidential primary fight.

* Obama Administration: Harris' law and order credentials could be appealing for President Obama if/when Attorney General Eric Holder decides to leave his post. It's not clear whether this latest episode would complicate such a pick or whether Harris would want to come to Washington given the bright prospects she has in California. There is also the reality that current Homeland Security Department chief Janet Napolitano has made clear her interest in serving as AG if and when that job comes open.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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