Politics

The California Feeding Frenzy for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat Is Off With a Bang

She hasn’t even announced her retirement yet.

Dianne Feinstein holds a face mask and looks angrily to the side.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2020. Pool/Getty Images

Update, Jan. 26, 2022, 2 p.m.: Rep. Adam Schiff has also now announced a bid for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat. She has still not announced a decision on retirement.

The 2024 California Senate race officially has one contestant, and it isn’t California’s sitting senior senator. On Tuesday, California congresswoman Katie Porter—she of the famed “whiteboard of justice”—announced she was running for Dianne Feinstein’s seat, even though the senator has not yet given any indication that she will be stepping down.

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Porter won’t be the only one. If Feinstein, 89 years old and in steeply declining health, does mercifully step aside, the race will be an all-out war of California’s top political up-and-comers, as well as a fundraising bonanza. The state’s two Senate seats come up for non-incumbent election exceedingly rarely—Feinstein has held the post since 1992, for over 30 years; the junior senator, Alex Padilla, was appointed by the governor in 2021 and will likely hold the seat until he resigns, dies, or tires of it.

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That other hungry California congressmen and -women, including Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, will also jump into this race is already a near certainty. There will be more, too. Already there is grumbling about Porter’s move, both because she didn’t wait until Feinstein’s formal announcement and because she beat the others to the punch. Right away, sources in Schiff’s orbit lit up the political press with anonymous sniping, saying to multiple outlets, “you don’t announce a campaign in the middle of a natural disaster,” referring to the ongoing flooding in California. Schiff then blasted out a fundraising email for flood victims (an altruistic gesture that would just so happen to bring in more names, emails, and phone numbers for his email list, which, incidentally, would be quite useful for later donations efforts by a political campaign).

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That’s an apt preview of the nastiness of the fight that’s yet to come. For all those politicians and more, the seat marks a once-in-a-career chance to rise in the ranks of a state caucus where opportunity is exceptionally hard to come by. Entire generations of Democratic rising stars have come and gone without ever seeing this opening. (Consider, for example, Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra, who was in Congress almost 15 years before finally becoming state attorney general and then a White House appointee, and who only ever saw one non-incumbent Senate race and chose to wait it out; that race was won by Kamala Harris.)

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Replacing Feinstein will be critical for California Democrats to get right, in part because, as mentioned, those Senate jobs tend to be lifetime appointments, but more importantly because it was so botched last time.

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In 2018, Feinstein, then a fresh-faced 85, came up for reelection. There was already plenty of grumbling among California political insiders that her health was not what it had been, and that she was suffering from what the New Yorker later referred to as “cognitive decline.” Even by 2018, California’s Democratic politics had grown much more progressive than those of the very, very moderate institutionalist Feinstein.

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She met a spirited primary challenger in Kevin de León, who was many years her junior and well to her left. The California Democratic Party took the rare step of endorsing de León in the runoff, even after a late plea from Feinstein asking California Dems not to endorse either candidate.

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But national Democrats overrode the state party and circled the wagons for Feinstein. Barack Obama, in his very first endorsement of the 2018 cycle, backed Feinstein. Later came the support of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and others (including Adam Schiff, actually). Feinstein ended up outraising de León by almost 20 times. (De León is currently embroiled in a racism scandal within Los Angeles’ city council.)

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Even before her 8-point Election Day triumph that year, the national-level support looked terribly shortsighted. Just before the November elections, Feinstein was partially responsible for the calamitous handling of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings: She sat for weeks on the letter from Christine Blasey Ford alleging sexual misconduct by the now-Supreme Court justice without mentioning it to her colleagues. Senate Democrats were stunned by that move, and questions about her health and fitness for the role began to grow louder.

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Two years later, an even more disastrous Supreme Court confirmation hearing resulted in Feinstein hugging Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and praising him after he rammed through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination just days before the 2020 election which gave Democrats the presidency and eventually the Senate. From that point on, Feinstein’s declining health became a widely circulated story in American politics.

It is assumed that whoever replaces Feinstein will be more progressive than she is, but there are a lot of ways this race could go. The NorCal/SoCal divide will be consequential in the race, as will California’s jungle primary system, which will see the top two vote-getters from primary season, almost certainly both Democrats, run it off in November.

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The NorCal field, presumed to include Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, will feature two prominent lefties. Khanna is a young, decorated progressive and Bernie Sanders delegate whose aspirations for higher office, perhaps as high as president, have been a poorly kept secret. Lee, who was considered but ultimately passed over by Joe Biden for vice president, is one of the longest-tenured House progressives. At 76 years old, she would be something of a bridge candidate, not expected to hold the position for multiple terms.

More attention has been paid to the SoCal side of the bracket, and that’s because of money. Both Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank are among the most prodigious fundraisers in the House, with major national profiles.

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During the 2022 election cycle, Porter raised more than $25 million, an astonishing figure for a House rep, riding a wave of small-dollar support after she repeatedly went viral for grilling corporate CEOs during House investigations. Her politics hew most closely to the Senate’s Elizabeth Warren.

Schiff, meanwhile, rode the first Trump impeachment to stardom. His routine appearances on MSNBC during the January 2020 proceedings delivered him his jackpot, and he raised a similarly astonishing $24 million during the most recent cycle while, unlike Porter, running in a safe blue seat. He’s got at least $20 million in cash left over for his own Feinstein-replacement announcement. He’s the most conservative of the obvious contenders, though that title could yet be claimed by someone like San Francisco mayor London Breed, if she throws her hat in.

The Senate map in 2024 looks fearsome for Democrats, who are going to have to battle back Republican advances in red states like West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio. But the California Senate race will be no less fiercely fought, and no less expensive. Still, replacing the Senate’s oldest—and, as a longtime defender of the filibuster, one of its most old-fashioned—members will be a boon to the Democratic agenda and the next Democratic president, be it Joe Biden, or, dare we say it, someone younger.

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