The Sept. 14 recall to decide the fate of California Gov. Gavin Newsom is beginning to look like it could get ugly for Democrats. Recent polling has shown that the state—a bastion of blue—is basically split in half on the question of whether to recall the governor. Structural quirks in the recall system paired with the Democratic Party’s approach to the challenge could make it hard for Democrats to retain power if the recall succeeds, despite a sizable statewide advantage. But the worst possible outcome of the recall challenge goes far beyond Newsom. The true nightmare scenario for Democrats would be this: What if Newsom loses, a Republican replaces him, and then 88-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein becomes unable to finish her term?
This is not some kind of paranoid thought experiment. Not only is the senator nearly 90 years old with COVID bouncing around the chambers, recent reporting has highlighted the “rumors of her cognitive decline,” as the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it at the end of last year. As Mayer wrote at the time:
[M]any others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have.
If Newsom is replaced by a Republican and Feinstein is not able to serve until a new governor enters office in January 2023, a GOP governor would be the one to appoint someone to fill her seat, potentially tipping the balance of power in the U.S. Senate to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans. It’s not a small thing.
A senator with declining mental faculties has not been a historical anomaly in an elective body that has skewed significantly older than the American population. It is even less surprising in the current Senate—the oldest in U.S. history. But evidence of Feinstein’s apparent decline has at times spilled into her public role: The former ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey the exact same question, verbatim, two times in a row during a hearing last year and, as the New York Times reported, she has sometimes responded with “outright confusion” at reporters’ questions.
All of which is to say: The Feinstein problem has been a subtext of the recall fight for months, but the questions around her ability to serve have rarely been openly discussed, and the argument that she should step down over her age before the recall vote has been largely contained to private grousing and public innuendo. In my conversations with progressive activists for this piece, several expressed a fear that it would be bad optics to try to push out an iconic female leader—one who comfortably won her last election just three years ago—on the basis of sensitive questions about her age and mental ability. As one told me, there is concern that discussing Feinstein’s particular issues without treating all other older Democrats the same way would cause problems while serving no greater purpose. “When people do this questioning of Dianne Feinstein and her faculties, I see where they’re trying to go with it, but I think in this day and age when disinformation is rampant, there’s a lot of partisan spin on things, and I really question what it means to have these sorts of conversations in this kind of environment,” Courage California executive director Irene Kao told me. “I just ultimately don’t think it’s helpful.”
It’s certainly true that older male senators in serious and well-known cognitive decline have served without nearly the same scrutiny that Feinstein has faced. South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond was in office until he was 100 years old and he “didn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback” for his last 10 years, as one of Mayer’s sources put it. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd was in the Senate until he was 92 and was famously “in decline” as press accounts put it by that point. More recently, Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran was described in public reporting as “feeble” and in “physical and mental decline” when he finally stepped down at 80 in 2018. And Joe Biden is the oldest first-term president in history at 78 (though he has faced plenty of questions about his faculties.) But overall, both political parties have historically not known how to deal with rapidly aging politicians who refuse to step aside, even when it could be to the very real detriment of the party, or the country. In private conversations, California activists compare the Feinstein/recall situation to the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat after she chose to stay on past Barack Obama’s tenure, or to Stephen Breyer’s continued decision to stay on the court at 83.
Feinstein recently said she will not be stepping down any time soon, adding that she will not resign even if Newsom looks like he is losing after the recall count has begun and before a successor can be sworn in, when an appointment could still be made by a Democrat. “Why would I?” Feinstein told CNN earlier this month. “It doesn’t affect me—the recall is just against him.” That statement, while technically true, betrays either a lack of understanding or a lack of consideration of the stakes: the possible balance of the U.S. Senate.
“I hope that if there is any sort of thought that that [situation] might occur, would occur, have the possibility to occur, I would think that she would hopefully not take that roll of the dice,” Dean Florez, a former state senator and Feinstein’s Latino coordinator for California during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1990, told me. If the recall is still close entering the final days of this campaign, “it would seem that it would be better for her at that point just to resign prior to the recall election,” Florez said. He worries there is a very real chance that the worst could happen, saying the Republicans on the recall ballot “are not going to blink when they have an opportunity to pick a Republican replacement.”
“A lot is riding on the recall. It may be the wildest [few] weeks in California history,” Florez said. “If Larry Elder wins, and Dianne Feinstein gets sick or she decides to resign. … It’s certainly something to be super worried about.”
Like several other politically active Californians I spoke with, Florez’s views on Feinstein have as much—or more—to do with her politics as they do about her age and faculties. Florez supported Feinstein’s Democratic opponent in her most recent election in 2018, in which she defeated Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de Léon, and feels she was selfish to stay on then and not make way for the state’s younger and more diverse Democratic talent. He compares her situation to that of Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is eight years younger than Feinstein but stepped down after four terms in the Senate in 2016, making way for Kamala Harris to claim that seat before winning the vice presidency. “[Feinstein] was a trailblazer and then the entire political landscape changed underneath her feet,” Florez said. “I think Barbara Boxer saw that early. I think she was kind of like, This isn’t the same place, this isn’t the same time. And I’m probably not the right person at this time, make room for the Kamala Harrises, the Kevin de Léons, the sort of new set of legislators that is reflective of the new population.”
Some progressive activists in California have been pushing for months prior to the recall drama—and to no avail—for Feinstein to step down, based on her politics, not her age. In their view, the state has moved far to her left. Like Florez, these activists say a diverse electorate deserves a more representative senator, and they cite various recent episodes in which she has appeared out of touch with California voters, pointing to a 2019 video of her scolding school children for their climate change advocacy, last year’s hug of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham following the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, and recent comments in support of the filibuster.
“It’s more to do with the fact that Sen. Feinstein has long been an obstacle to many progressive policies that are central to the way that California wants to move forward,” She the People founder Aimee Allison, who has called for Feinstein to step down, told me. “This is a good time for her to gracefully usher in and welcome a Black woman in to that seat.”
The advocacy group Courage California has also organized a recent campaign pushing Feinstein “to step up” in support of ending the filibuster “or step down” from her seat. Kao said that she wanted to give Feinstein a chance to come around to shifting her position in support of the filibuster, which her organization argues is a Jim Crow relic that is currently being abused by the minority party to block everything from voting rights to climate change action, to police reform.
“I think right now there is a little bit of what do you do with a senator who has clearly signaled that she’s not listening to her communities and to her constituents and has stayed pretty stubborn in not following what Californians are asking for,” Kao said.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that activists were willing to go on the record with me to discuss Feinstein’s politics, but not to discuss her age and mental capacity. The few times that the conversation around Feinstein’s age and ability has appeared in the press in relation to the recall, it hasn’t been pretty for Democrats. In March, MSNBC’s Joy Reid asked Newsom if he would appoint a Black woman “if, in fact, Dianne Feinstein were to retire,” and he responded “we have multiple names in mind, and the answer is yes.” Critics (many of them Democrats) responded by saying that the governor was merely trying to curry favor with Black constituents while throwing Feinstein under the bus. (Progressive activists I spoke with have been pushing hard for either Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee to replace Feinstein should the opportunity arise.) Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and a state political strategist for Democrats, tweeted in response to Newsom’s statement: “You don’t have to like Dianne Feinstein to see that pushing her out of her elected position for a Black woman appointment that you could have made when there was an actual vacancy to win a recall to push you out of your elected position is a very bad look.” Newsom shortly thereafter walked back his statement about the appointment, saying he had “zero expectations the senator will be going anywhere.”
More recently, Newsom has framed the stakes of the recall by hinting at broader implications. “If this was a successful recall, I think it would have profound consequences nationwide, and go to not just politics, but to policy and policymaking,” Newsom said earlier this month—not exactly the kind of pointed statement that might get some Democrats motivated enough to send back their ballot. He was a bit more explicit at a campaign event in San Jose, when he said, “I mean, who would Larry Elder or any of these others have appointed to replace Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate? Think about what that would have meant to the fate and future of our democracy at this moment. … The consequences [of the recall] are profound.” Still, he didn’t say Feinstein’s name.
Progressive activists have been quietly fearful for months that the Feinstein situation is playing out like a slow-motion version of the loss of Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, with no plan in place for the worst-case scenario. When I asked a national Democratic strategist about whether the party had any plans for a possible Newsom loss, she demurred, saying the party was focused entirely on winning the recall. “We are very much focused on that for the next [few] weeks and doing everything we can to make sure the governor has the support he needs as we get closer to the election,” the strategist said. Most elected Democratic officials wouldn’t even respond to my requests to discuss Feinstein’s seat (some gently declined to speak). I emailed the staff of 10 top Democratic local, state, and national elected officials and none would talk. Staff for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office also declined to discuss the issue, while an adviser for Newsom’s campaign pointed me to his remarks in San Jose but would not say whether the governor has spoken directly with Feinstein about the possibility that she might retire to allow a Democratic governor to appoint a replacement.
The hesitancy to speak isn’t just elected Democrats, though. Some activists fear that focusing on Feinstein—or pushing her to step down early to save the seat no matter what—could backfire, and act as a self-fulfilling prophecy by discouraging an already depressed Democratic electorate from even turning out. Angelica Salas, the executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said her focus was entirely on the recall itself, telling me that any distractions from the vote could “in a sense fulfill your worst nightmare.” To Salas, “getting the voters to take action is the most important thing to do right now,” and Feinstein isn’t a part of that picture, in her mind.
Still, though very few people are talking about Feinstein’s reported cognitive decline and age in public, that doesn’t mean those conversations aren’t happening behind closed doors. One activist leader in California involved in progressive politics compared the situation with Feinstein to having to take the car keys away from the activist’s father. “It broke my heart to take the keys, because he shouldn’t be driving, he can’t safely drive,” the activist leader said. “That’s personal family life, but you think about our public life, our responsibility, and at what point are we responsible? Where’s the public in the public service part? These are not lifetime seats—they shouldn’t be.”
Dean Florez, meanwhile, thinks that Californians and national Democrats should be willing to have the conversation about Feinstein’s ability to continue to serve publicly, especially given the state of the recall race. He said he read Jane Mayer’s piece about Feinstein’s mental fitness and was shaken by it.
“I read it. It alarms me. I think it’s a question of having the faculty to continue to serve,” Florez said. “It is an issue that she and others around her—Chuck Schumer, even the leadership in California—it is an issue that people should discuss in the next couple of weeks, because this recall, it’s mildly out of control.”