State Senate leader Toni Atkins speaks at the State of the State ceremony on March 8, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Voters won’t weigh in for more than two years — the primary election is not until June 2026 — but the race to be California’s next governor is already growing crowded with major contenders.

Outgoing state Senate leader Toni Atkins today became the latest high-ranking Democrat to declare their candidacy, holding a kickoff rally packed with union members in her hometown of San Diego.

Three other prominent hopefuls — all current or former statewide elected officials looking for a promotion — have announced their intentions to succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom, who terms out in 2027, and there are likely to be even more who jump in. It’s a reflection of the scramble to gain an upper hand in what is likely to be a fierce contest, as well as the tremendous resources required to mount a serious campaign in California’s first open race for governor in eight years.

“They’re letting their intentions be known so they can wave the flag,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. “You need to consolidate, you need to get in the game, you need to go talk to donors.”

Atkins follows Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who was the first out of the gate last April, touting the opportunities that California gave her immigrant father. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond joined the race in September with a video tracking his rise from poverty. And former Controller Betty Yee said she will run for governor, though she has yet to formally launch her campaign.

Attorney General Rob Bonta, who acknowledged last year that he is “seriously considering” seeking the governorship, is still expected to make a bid. Then there’s the question of who might carry the banner for the Republican Party, which has lost the last three gubernatorial elections by nearly 20 percentage points or more and has not won a statewide office in California since 2006.

Nevertheless, the race is already far more formed than it was at the same point in the 2018 election. Newsom, at that time the lieutenant governor, probably set a speed record when he announced his candidacy in February 2015, just three months after then-Gov. Jerry Brown won a second term — but then his rivals hesitated. Some waited almost another two years before launching their campaigns.

“Look what happened to them,” Acosta said. “By the time people got in the race, Newsom’s team had done a good job of framing that the race was already over. And it kind of was.”

Racking up endorsements and fundraising is key in a state like California where, because of the sheer size, advertising trumps retail politics and millions of dollars are needed to get on the air in multiple expensive media markets. Though most voters are not yet paying attention to an election that is years away, jumping in early allows candidates to start pulling those important levers behind the scenes.

It’s especially critical for someone like Atkins, who has never run for statewide office and will need to work even harder to build familiarity with voters. She hands over the office of Senate president pro tem on Feb. 5 and terms out of the Legislature at the end of the year, losing a powerful post from which to solicit donations and support.

“You’d rather be in a position where you are dictating it on your own terms,” Acosta said. “So it’s kind of game on.”

As Atkins’ rally ended, Thurmond rolled out a new union endorsement, while earlier this week, Kounalakis announced that she had received the backing of another 16 of Atkins’ legislative colleagues. The daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, Kounalakis has a substantial financial advantage in the race and reported raising more than $3.7 million by the end of last year.

Atkins seemed to nod to that in her remarks today, which laid out her journey from a poor upbringing in rural West Virginia to become the first woman who has led both houses of the California Legislature, where she has carried bills making it easier to build housing and protecting abortion rights.

“You shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to make it in California,” she said. “You should only have to have a dream and people who care enough to help you reach it. Let’s achieve that dream together.”

Expect to hear a lot more about the history that could be made by this slate of candidates. Atkins, Kounalakis or Yee would be the first woman governor in California history. Atkins would also be the first openly LGBTQ+ person to lead the state, while Thurmond would be the first Black person and Bonta or Yee would be the first Asian American.

### is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.