Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) announced on Thursday that she is currently looking into a gubernatorial run in 2026, potentially joining a handful of candidates who have already announced three years before the election is to take place.
Originally from Virginia, Atkins moved to San Diego at the age of 23 in 1985. Originally the Director of Clinic Services at the Womancare Health Center , Atkins soon moved into politics and became the council representative and policy analyst for San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe. When Kehoe became an Assemblywoman in 2000, Atkins ran for and won her old Council seat, and was reelected in 2004. In 2005, following a series of financial issues and fraud cases that caused Mayor Dick Murphy and several city Councilmembers to resign, Atkins became Mayor for the rest of the year and subsequently became the first openly lesbian Mayor of the city.
In 2010, she began a six-year stint in the Assembly, with two of those years also serving as the Speaker. However, she had to step down as speaker in 2016 due in part to criticism over a bill she supported which limit public agency oversight of power companies. Despite this, she ran for state Senate in 2016 and won. During her first term, she tried and failed to pass SB 50, a bill that would have preempted local government control of land zoning near public transit stations and jobs centers to build more housing. Republicans and many fellow Democrats attacked the bill, with Atkins even using her powers to bypass a committee which had been highly critical of it. Despite her efforts, SB 50 ultimately failed to pass in the Senate in 2019.
Since 2018, Atkins has been the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, although she is due to be replaced early next year by Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg). In recent years, Atkins has also brought a renewed focus towards LGBT and womens health issues in the Senate, backing bills that would add an abortion rights constitutional amendment, increase the number of nurse practitioners performing abortions, end abortion co-pays, and end the anti-LGBT state travel ban to over half the country. Since 2021, Atkins has also been actively fundraising for a 2026 run for Lieutenant Governor, initially resisting aiming for the top post itself.
This all led to Atkins’ Thursday announcement that she is now actively considering a run for Governor, with her focusing on her decades of elected experience and her poor upbringing in Virginia as setting herself apart from her current opponents.
“I’m very interested in looking at that possibility of running for governor,” said Atkins on Thursday. “I am looking at it seriously. I sort of feel like I’m addicted to responsibility. I think experience counts and matters, and I believe I have experience to continue to contribute in some way. I see what you can do when you’re in that role. There is something about being at the table.”
Should Atkins fully run, she would be joining an already crowded early field consisting of Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Former Controller and current California Democratic Party Vice President Betty Yee, and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond. Many others have also been heavily speculated on in recent months, including Attorney General Rob Bonta, potentially meaning a very crowded Gubernatorial primary in early 2026.
“If Atkins for sure runs, she will come in as the most experienced candidate and the most well known one, ” said gubernatorial pollster Guillermo Williams to the Globe. “She would easily grab the LGBT vote, would be popular amongst women, and would have a big base in San Diego. Already, this is a very diverse race, and Atkins would add to that.
“Her failure with SB 50 would be a mark against her. Also, while she does have a lot of supporters in the San Diego area, a lot of people there also plain don’t like her there because of her politics. It’s not just the GOP either, as many Democrats have found some of the things she wanted to pass troubling in past years. Opponents will likely bring up how she has played “fast and loose” with getting certain bills passed too. She’s not a certain thing, and many Democrats know this. Plus, Newsom and others will likely be on Kounalakis’ side, so yeah, an Atkins run wouldn’t be a walk in the park by any means.”
Atkins is expected to make a final decision on running in the coming months.
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