California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis declared Monday that she’d run to succeed termed-out Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, in a top-two primary that won't take place until 2026. That might feel like a way-too-early kickoff at a time when the Golden State's 2024 election cycle, including the battle to succeed retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is still in its early stages. But Kounalakis likened her effort to become the first woman to lead America’s largest state to running a marathon, saying of her preparations, “You really have to start early.”
Kounalakis is also hoping to emulate the strategy Newsom himself utilized in February of 2015 when Newsom, who was himself lieutenant governor at the time, launched his successful 2018 bid for the top job. Newsom made good use of his head start, establishing a lead in the polls he never relinquished and racking up a decisive fundraising advantage in a state where it costs a fortune for candidates to get their names out. “You can’t do it in 15 minutes,” former Sen. Barbara Boxer says of waging a statewide bid, and she would know: Then-Rep. Boxer announced her pioneering campaign for the Senate just one day after Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston announced he wouldn’t run again—fully two years before the 1992 elections.
Kounalakis herself is the daughter of billionaire Angelo Tsakopoulos, an influential political donor who has spent decades supporting fellow Greek American Democrats, including 1988 presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis. Kounalakis, who rose to become president of her family’s real estate firm, similarly made a name for herself as a prominent party fundraiser, and Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to Hungary early in his administration.
Kounalakis sought elected office for the first time in 2018 when she campaigned for the lieutenant governor’s office that Newsom was leaving behind, and she quickly picked up the backing of then-Sen. Kamala Harris. The former ambassador also self-funded $3.3 million for the primary, while her father donated another $5 million to a super PAC supporting her.
Kounalakis ended up taking first with 24% in an 11-person field; state Sen. Ed Hernandez, a fellow Democrat who enjoyed extensive labor support, finished a close second with 21%. In the second round, Kounalakis secured an endorsement from Obama and continued to enjoy a big financial edge that she rode to a 57-43 victory, which made her the first woman to ever hold the post. The new lieutenant governor was immediately talked about as a future candidate for higher office, and the chatter only intensified following her easy 60-40 victory against a Republican last year.
But while Kounalakis’ new declaration demonstrates that, whether we like it or not, the 2026 cycle is already here, we’re going to wait a bit before taking stock of her would-be rivals. While anyone following U.S. politics today has spent most, if not all, of their lives in an era of the permanent campaign (perhaps you remember this classic XKCD strip from the day after the 2008 election), even we have some limits here at Daily Kos Elections.
Our general practice is to only talk about a race when it's no more than two years off, so we won't be saying much about the race to succeed Newsom until after Election Day 2024—unless another serious candidate announces before then that they’re competing with Kounalakis. And that could well happen: Treasurer John Chiang declared in May of 2016 that he’d also be running for governor two years hence, though this early launch culminated in a weak fifth-place showing in the top-two primary.
America could learn a lot from how other countries elect their leaders! Political science professor Matthew Shugart joins us on this week's episode of “The Downballot” to explain how a variety of electoral systems around the world operate, as well as his thoughts on which might work well here—and actually improve our democracy. Shugart gets into the weeds on proportional voting, single transferable vote, "decoy lists," and much more. If those terms are new to you, you'll definitely want to listen!