Xavier Becerra's Stress Test

The Californian could run for Senate or compete for a top leadership job. Is he tough enough for either race?

With the House Democratic bench getting thinner by the day, Rep. Xavier Becerra has a decision to make. He could jump into a contested primary for a rare open California Senate seat. Or he could stay in the House and plot a bid for the next top Democratic leadership office that opens up.

Facing the same choice, Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards—both rising stars in the House Democratic caucus—have dived in recent days into the Maryland Senate race. And back in Becerra's home state, Attorney General Kamala Harris has accrued an early slew of endorsements with no opponent in sight in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.

After years of carefully avoiding making enemies, either move would likely draw the second-term chair of the House Democratic Caucus into a cutthroat fight. Becerra's nice-guy image—and what some perceive as a lack of toughness—would be put to the test.

"He's a nice, smart guy," said a former House Democratic leadership aide, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. "I think you have to take him seriously. Whether or not he would be a dominant, tough candidate in a leadership race—I don't think people view him that way. I don't think anyone is really scared of him."

Those who know Becerra describe him as a man who seeks out others' views and is more concerned with building consensus than manipulating outcomes. "He is very good at listening, and he is also good at making sure that people have their voices heard, whether or not he agrees with those points of view," said Rep. Ted Lieu, a freshman from a neighboring Los Angeles district. The two have known each other since the 1990s, and Lieu supported Becerra's ill-fated 2001 run for mayor of Los Angeles. "I've yet to see him yell at anyone," Lieu added. "He's unflappable."

Another longtime friend of Becerra went even further. "He's a poster child that the Boy Scouts could use," said Mickey Ibarra, a veteran of the Clinton White House and founder of the Latino Leaders Network, who has known Becerra since his early days in Congress.

That squeaky-clean reputation won't be so easy to maintain—and may not be much use—in a knock-down, drag-out statewide campaign. Nor, for that matter, in the often-nasty internal politics of a Capitol Hill leadership election. But whether it's "sharp elbows" or a "killer instinct" that Becerra will need to move up politically, he's not interested in discussing whether he'll have to shed his nice-guy reputation.

"It's good to know people think I'm a nice guy," he a said in a brief interview in a Capitol elevator, quickly segueing into a recap of tough House votes that he believes have prepared him for the Senate. Becerra's office would not make him available for a lengthier discussion despite weeks of interview requests.

Becerra says he's looking "very seriously" at the Senate race, and with the news last month that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would not be running, more people are looking at him as a serious contender. Harris has lined up a broad swath of support, but the state's demographics suggest there may be room in the race for a Latino candidate with a Southern California base.

"What he has is more than even a Hispanic coalition," said Rep. Janice Hahn, a fellow Los Angeles Democrat who recently announced a bid for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. "He has a Southern California coalition. We in Southern California would love to see someone from Southern California be a candidate."

Eliseo Medina, a labor organizer and immigration activist who considers Becerra a friend, said he could also earn support from labor and business groups. And his nice-guy reputation, Medina said, could even be an asset as he tries to earn support from various factions. "I don't know anybody that I've spoken to in all my years in California that would have something against Xavier," he said. "He's managed to build broad relationships."

Whether or not Becerra chooses to run statewide, he's more than put in his time in the House, where he's served since 1993. His one electoral blemish was the 2001 mayoral race, which was plagued by poor fundraising and the fallout from a deceptive telephone ad linked to his campaign. He earned only 6 percent of the primary vote.

Matt Middlebrook, who ran James Hahn's winning mayoral campaign that year, said the race was an uphill battle for Becerra with a crowded primary of well-known candidates. "It was a challenging race. The dynamics were not optimal for him at the time," Middlebrook said. "There was not a ton of oxygen left in the room."

Since then, Becerra has steadily worked his way upward in the House—even taking the unusual step of publicly rejecting an offer to serve as U.S. trade representative under President Obama. He served as Caucus vice chair from 2009 until 2013, when he was elected to the top spot. He was also appointed to serve on a series of fiscal "super committees." Some Democrats—like Van Hollen—took the political risk of backing the so-called Simpson-Bowles proposal, which included entitlement cuts in its deficit-reduction efforts (Van Hollen will certainly be hearing about that in the Senate primary). Becerra voted against that plan in 2010, and autopsies following the failure of the 2011 "super committee" pinned some of the blame on Becerra for being unwilling to consider any deal that involved many concessions from Democrats.

"When it comes to issues of principle, I don't think Xavier is one to waver," said Becerra's No. 2, Caucus vice chair Joseph Crowley. "But he tries to accommodate different thoughts within our caucus. "¦ Xavier is a big enough guy to know that he doesn't have all the answers."

And if opponents think Becerra's friendly persona makes him a shrinking violet, added Rep. Steve Israel, they're wrong. "I have viewed Xavier in public settings, and I sit with him in small leadership meetings," Israel said. "He may not throw sharp elbows, and he definitely has some sharp passions. "¦ I've seen him go toe to toe with representatives on the issue, I've seen him go toe to toe with the White House on the issue. He doesn't hold back."

Middlebrook, who helped defeat Becerra in 2001, said he has the credentials now to be successful. Still, he added, in California, a political resume only goes so far.

"It's a very big state," Middlebrook said, "and running statewide is a very different animal in terms of how many people you have to get to know and how much you have to travel and how much money you have to raise. ... The road is littered with a lot of candidates for statewide office who got into it underestimating how big the task is."