The big political news in California this week has been U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s not-so-surprising announcement she will not seek election to a fifth term. This is the first time there’s been an open U.S. Senate seat in the Golden State since 1992, so there is n o lack of potential candidates. One name enjoying frequent mention is Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who grew up in Anaheim and represents much of the city in Congress.

Sanchez maintained a poker face in her official statement on Boxer’s retirement:

“Senator Barbara Boxer has made history more times than I can count. As a champion of environmental protection, quality public education and women’s rights, Senator Boxer has played a pivotal role in Washington. Above all, Senator Boxer put Californians first and for that our state will be forever grateful.

“It goes without saying that her leadership and presence will be sorely missed. I wish Senator Boxer and her family all my best.”

She was less coy last month with Martin Wisckol of the OC Register:

Roll Call reported in 2007 that Sanchez was considering a U.S. Senate run if Boxer stepped down in 2010. And in 2005 Sanchez opened an exploratory committee for a possible 2010 gubernatorial run. So it’s natural she might be considering another statewide bid, such as a run for Boxer’s seat if it’s open.

“We’ve been asked to look at it and it never hurts to look,” she said. “I enjoy my current job representing the people of the 46th Congressional District, but nothing is off the table.”

An unnamed source with “close knowledge of her thinking” told MSNBC that chances of a Sanchez candidacy are “50-50” depending on “how the field shakes out.”

Although I have no special insight into Sanchez’s thinking on this matter, I’d agree with that assessment. Sanchez has already displayed an ambition to seek higher office. She’s been in Congress since 1996. Although she has a pretty safe seat, she’s been in the majority for only four of her 18 years in the House – and there’s little prospect of that changing in the future. Elected officials often reach a point where they decide it time to move up or out, and she may be at that point.

Although she would be an underdog in a crowded field, Sanchez has demonstrated star power and fratricide among front-running candidates could open the door for her to make the top-two run-off against either a Republican or another Democrat – especially if there are no other Hispanics in the field. After all, that’s how she emerged from the 1996 Democratic primary to earn the general election against then-incumbent Rep. Bob Dornan. it’s also worth remembering that Barbara Boxer herself was a big underdog in the 1992 primary against Lt. Governor (and former Assembly Speaker) Leo McCarthy and Rep. Mel Levine (the candidate of the then-powerful Waxman-Berman machine). In fact, she was widely considered mortally wounded by the House Bank scandal: she bounced 143 checks worth $41,417, earning her the sobriquet “Barbara Bouncer.”

There’ll be a lot of jockeying and positioning in the weeks ahead, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Sanchez.