Eleni Kounalakis surprisingly kicked open the door to California’s next governor’s race in April when she announced she’s running to succeed Gavin Newsom a full three years before the 2026 elections.
As it turns out, Kounalakis isn’t the only statewide elected official who’s been making moves. Just hours after her announcement, former state Controller Betty Yee informally announced plans to throw her hat in the ring.
Since that time, The Standard has learned that Attorney General Rob Bonta is also expressing serious interest in seeking California’s highest statewide office. Multiple sources confirmed that Bonta has been building out a new political team in the event that he announces a campaign for governor while also testing the waters with political allies to see where their allegiances lie.
The Standard talked with political strategists and local and state officials to get a better sense of how Bonta is preparing for a potential run for governor and what chance he has to compete with fellow Democrat Kounalakis.
Political Parlor Games
In some ways, Kounalakis is to blame for Bonta hiring a new campaign squad just half a year after he won his first full term as California’s top attorney.
Sources told The Standard that veteran political consultant Ace Smith, whose firm Bearstar Strategies is based in San Francisco, chose to handle Kounalakis’s campaign over continuing on with Bonta, which created a potential conflict in the event that Bonta decides to run.
The attorney general has since enlisted the help of 50+1 Strategies, another vaunted San Francisco political firm, which is led by Nicole Derse and Addisu Demissie.
Derse was one of the first staffers on Barack Obama’s 2007 presidential campaign and served as a senior advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign, according to the firm’s website. Demissie worked on Cory Booker’s U.S. Senate campaign in New Jersey in 2013 and also played a key role in Newsom’s successful run for governor in 2018.
Derse declined to comment for this story.
David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in the city, said the shuffling of political strategists is a classic San Francisco “parlor game,” but neither Kounalakis nor Bonta should be seen as having a clear advantage when it comes to their teams.
“Everyone we’re talking about here is legit,” Latterman said. “Everyone is a Goliath here.”
Cash Is Queen
Perhaps the biggest advantage Kounalakis has in the 2026 governor’s race is the huge ceiling she has in terms of raising money.
Kounalakis can not only bundle funds the traditional way, thanks to her sterling reputation in Democratic Party circles, but she can also count on her father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, a Sacramento real estate magnate.
In 2018, Tsakopoulos threw nearly $5 million into a committee sponsored by the California Medical Association to support his daughter’s run for lieutenant governor.
Tsakopoulos’s net worth has been estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, and he has served as a megadonor to Democratic candidates and the party over the years. In the last couple of election cycles, he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates across the state and country, including more than $210,000 to help Newsom beat back the recall, according to Open Secrets.
Tsakopoulos’s role as a political benefactor is widely seen as the reason Obama appointed Kounalakis ambassador to Hungary from 2010 to 2013.
“The ambassadorship was through patronage, not bureaucracy,” said one source.
Multiple sources noted that Kounalakis’s decision to jump into the governor’s race early gives her a key advantage to start securing endorsements and campaign contributions. State records show she had more than $4.4 million left over from her 2022 reelection campaign committee as of February. Since May 2, she has already raised more than $160,000 in her run for governor.
By comparison, Bonta’s attorney general campaign for 2026 had just $20,000 in the bank at the end of last year. Since the start of 2023, he’s raised a little more than $27,000. However, it likely wouldn’t take Bonta long to get a pipeline going if he were to announce.
Time To Run
The timing of the lieutenant governor’s decision might have caught some off guard, but many in state politics have viewed a Kounalakis candidacy as a foregone conclusion, thanks to her deep connections and family’s ability to help fund a campaign that will likely cost tens of millions.
In many ways, Kounalakis’s decision mirrored Newsom’s own ambitious candidacy for governor, which launched just months after Jerry Brown won a second term during his second stint in the governor’s mansion. Newsom was lieutenant governor from 2011 through 2018.
While she technically is California’s second-highest ranking state official, Kounalakis’ role as lieutenant governor is limited in scope. She has no real legislative role, and even Newsom once admitted about the job: “It’s just so dull.”
Saying that, Kounalakis has been given more leeway than Newsom had under Brown, and she is expected to be given a runway to build up momentum for her campaign.
Meanwhile, Bonta has no shortage of tasks to tackle as attorney general—a job in which he is still relatively new. Bonta went from working as a deputy city attorney in San Francisco and an Alameda councilmember to serving more than nine years in the state Assembly. He just started his first true term after Newsom appointed him attorney general in April 2021.
Larry Gerston, professor emeritus for San Jose State University's political science department and a political analyst for NBC Bay Area, said Bonta’s position can serve as a launchpad for anyone seeking higher office. Past attorneys general who went on to become governor include Pat Brown, Jerry Brown—in between his two stints as governor—and George Deukmejian.
“It’s a very powerful position because he or she is the state’s chief official when it comes to laws, opinions given to the Legislature and representation for the state before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Gerston said. “You're talking about a person with a whole lot more visibility than anyone in the executive branch, except for the governor.”
Kounalakis hasn’t had to make too many tough decisions during her time as lieutenant governor, but Bonta has been on the front lines of several major policy decisions, and so far, he has received high marks for his performance. He has taken on fossil fuel companies and gone after cities that fail to address the housing crisis.
Gerston and other sources contacted for this story seemed confident that Bonta could balance his current role with a campaign and build a coalition that has a path to competing with Koulanakis, if and when he decides to run for governor.
“It’s something we see all the time in politics, when people are hopping from one office to another,” Gerston said. “[Bonta] has got a big staff. You can walk and chew gum in politics.”
Josh Koehn can be reached at [email protected]