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California Senate race a tangle of competing loyalties for Clintons

The state's blockbuster Senate race is a tangle of competing loyalties and allegiances for former and potential future presidents.
Former President Bill Clinton and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laugh during during the 37th Harkin Steak Fry, Sept. 14, 2014 in Indianola, Iowa. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty)
Former President Bill Clinton and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laugh during during the 37th Harkin Steak Fry, Sept. 14, 2014 in Indianola, Iowa.

California Democrats are girding for a potentially heated family feud in the liberal state’s first open Senate seat race in two decades. Now the question is: Will the closest thing the party has to a patriarch and matriarch get involved? They might be forced to.

For Bill and Hillary Clinton, the race is shaping up to be a tangle of competing loyalties and allegiances that might make them want to stay out of California politics entirely. But thanks to the state's top-two primary system, they won't have the benefit of waiting to let voters pick the top Democrat in the race.

The three leading contenders for the seat appear to be Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer. Though only Harris has officially declared her intentions to run thus far, both Villaraigosa and Steyer say they’re seriously considering bid.

RELATED: Elizabeth Warren goes all in for Kamala Harris

Villaraigosa might be the most obvious front-runner to win the Clintons' endorsement, considering he was a national co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. At the time, the endorsement of one of the country’s most prominent Latino leaders was a coup for the then-senator. The Clintons, and the former president in particular, have famously long memories for such loyalty.

“For Bill especially, the question when it comes to endorsing always seems to be, where were you in 2008?” said one California insider.

But then Villaraigosa will have to compete with Steyer, who was one of Hillary Clinton’s earliest, most committed, and most generous supporters. After giving her the maximum contribution and raising more from friends, Steyer stuck with Clinton until the bitter end of her campaign, before shifting support to Barack Obama, and has remained close with the former secretary of state ever since.

Steyer’s non-profit is a partner in the Clinton Global Initiative. Steyer’s top political advisor, Chris Lehane, is a former Clinton aide. Steyer’s brother, Jim, taught Chelsea Clinton as a student at Stanford. Hillary Clinton visited Steyer at his home in July. And they sat next to each other at a League of Conservation Voters dinner in New York in September.

And Steyer has made himself a force in Democratic politics, spending more in the 2014 midterm elections than any other donor of either party.

That would seem to leave out Harris, who supported Barack Obama over Clinton in 2008. But even she has her ties to Clinton land. EMILY’s List, the powerful Washington-based Democratic group with deep ties to Clinton, has already indicated their support for Harris. Clinton might pause at the prospect of parting ways with the group by not backing the only woman in the race.

RELATED: Sen. Barbara Boxer to retire, tipping off blockbuster Senate race

Harris’ San Francisco-based strategists, meanwhile, worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and are likely be involved again in 2016.

Advisers close to the three potential candidates were mum on Friday about any communications with Clinton world.

The former first family has not shied away from endorsing in Democratic primaries in the past, including in California. But even if they’d prefer to take a pass, they won't have the luxury of a Democratic primary sorting it out for them, thanks to California's unique electoral system.

The state’s new “jungle primary” system makes it likely that two Democrats will end up in the general election together, instead of one Democrat and one Republican.

For Clinton, that means that, if she decides to run for president and wins the nomination, she could share the ballot with two Democrats with whom she's close in November 2016. Which box will she encourage California supporters to check underneath her own name?