Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis announces early bid in 2026 California governor's race

California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis announced she is running for governor on Monday, laying down an early marker for what is likely to be a vigorous 2026 campaign to replace termed-out Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Democrat asserted in her announcement that she is well qualified for the post because of the combination of her experience in government — two terms in her current office as well as serving as U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration — as well as in the private sector, where she lead a Sacramento development company founded by her father.

“As the proud daughter of an immigrant who came to California with nothing, my family owes everything to this state — I’m running for governor to ensure all Californians have the opportunities we’ve had,” Kounalakis said in a statement.

Her family is wealthy and has spent generously on their political priorities, including Kounalakis’ lieutenant governor’s race and Phil Angelides’ unsuccessful 2006 gubernatorial run.

The 57-year-old’s announcement that she was opening a gubernatorial campaign committee allows her to raise $72,800 per donor, and mirrors Newsom’s decision to enter the 2018 governor’s race three years early. The pair are advised by the same political consultants.

The race to lead the world’s fifth-largest economy is expected to draw many contenders from a large pool of ambitious Democratic politicians looking for their next perch.

If Kounalakis is successful, she would be the first woman elected to lead the state. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Hewlett-Packard chief Meg Whitman are among the women who have unsuccessfully run for the post.

“We have never had a woman governor of the state of California. If I don’t try to organize a campaign to be the first, who will?” Kounalakis told The Times in 2022.

The lieutenant governor’s post is viewed as largely ceremonial, but two of the state’s last four governors held the post — Newsom and former Gov. Gray Davis. Kounalakis highlighted her work in the job opposing tuition hikes and other policies that would likely be popular with the state’s liberal voters.

“I’ve fought hard to keep the doors of opportunity open for all by making college more accessible, took on the Trump administration’s attempts to expand offshore drilling, fought for new laws to protect women from sexual assault, and expanded access to reproductive choice.”

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