Orange County Rep. Christopher Cox surprised state Republicans on Thursday with an announcement that he will not be a U.S. Senate candidate next year.
Republican strategists said Cox's decision leaves the early race for the GOP nomination firmly in the hands of Rep. Michael Huffington, a Santa Barbara millionaire willing to spend large amounts of his own money to win public office.
Two other Republican candidates who have said they will run are former Orange County congressman William E. Dannemeyer and Riverside County businesswoman Kate Squires.
Cox had been exploring a Senate campaign since April, when he said he was encouraged to run by state Republican Party Chairman Tirso del Junco. In recent weeks, Cox has also told supporters he would announce his campaign soon.
But Cox faced a major opponent in Huffington, a moderate Republican who spent more than $5 million of his own money to win a seat in the House last year. In a statement Thursday, Cox said he fears that the primary would be so costly and divisive that "it may be a Pyrrhic victory."
"My great concern is that an exciting primary over a nine-month period would accomplish nothing more than delaying the campaign against Dianne Feinstein," Cox said, adding that he will seek reelection to his House seat next year.
Huffington said Thursday he expects a smooth primary that will allow him to focus his campaign on Feinstein rather than on a GOP opponent.
Party leaders said Cox's decision might leave an opening for a conservative Republican candidate. But they also said most of the major Republican prospects have rejected the idea and the chance for success would be slim for any candidate who is not well known or does not have millions of dollars to spend.
"What happens now is that it looks like Huffington has a clear shot, pretty much," said Ken Khachigian, a Republican political consultant who managed Bruce Herschensohn's unsuccessful race against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer last year.
Del Junco agreed. "I haven't really heard about anyone else," he said.
One reason other Republicans are not interested in the race is that Feinstein is considered to be in good political health and many GOP leaders believe it will be difficult to unseat her.
Huffington, 46, the son of Texas oilman Roy Huffington, announced his plans to run for the Senate last month, less than a year after he won his first public office in a $5.4-million campaign that set a national record for the most expensive House race in U.S. history.