The California Senate Race Begins With a Scuffle Over Candidates’ Progressive Bona Fides
The last few months have been a waiting game for Barbara Lee. Even as two of her junior House colleagues launched campaigns to succeed 89-year-old senator Dianne Feinstein, Lee “wanted to wait until the senator made her announcement” before making it official, says Katie Merrill, a general consultant for Lee. On Tuesday, that moment came when Feinstein told her colleagues she wouldn’t seek another six-year term at the Democratic caucus lunch. “There are times for all things under the sun, and I think that will be the right time,” Feinstein said of her decision to retire after she finishes out her term through the end of 2024.
Within a day, Lee filed a “Barbara Lee for US Senate” campaign with the Federal Election Commission. Her official campaign launch will happen by the end of February, Black History Month. “There have only been two Black women senators in the nearly 240-year history of this country since 1789. Out of those 240 years, they served a total tenure of 10 years,” Merrill says, in reference to now vice president Kamala Harris and former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun. “Representation matters, and a Black woman’s voice is sorely missing in the US Senate. Congresswoman Lee’s candidacy would be historic and she wanted to honor that in Black History Month.”
With Feinstein out and Lee in, what was already expected to be a bruising Democrat-on-Democrat race to the Senate is heating up. California representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, both of whom announced their bids before Feinstein stepped aside, have already begun girding for battle. Presumably to better position himself to win the two-party primary in deep blue California, Schiff is seemingly trying to bolster his liberal bona fides by seeking to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus—after years as a member of the moderate Blue Dogs and later the New Democrat Coalition. A Schiff spokesperson told Politico the CPC is “where his natural home is.” To which Porter shot back: “I am a member of the Progressive Caucus…he is not,” according to The Hill’s Mychael Schnell.
These are just the opening salvos in what will be a long race. Strategists who spoke with Vanity Fair cautioned that it is too early to know where the political winds will push candidates. “Speculating this early about who is the most progressive or conservative is fun political gossip, but it really ignores the reality that the field isn’t set,” Max Szabo, a California-based political strategist, told VF. Other candidates are expected to jump in the race. California congressman Ro Khanna is among those who have been floated as a potential candidate. (He recently shared a tweet in support of Lee, but has said he will make a decision by the end of April.) Then there is the possibility that a largely self-funded candidate could hop in the race and shift the field—Carly Fiorina, Rick Caruso, and Meg Whitman are similar examples of this phenomenon in California.
As VF previously reported, the cost of running a viable statewide campaign in California is expected to cost somewhere in the $40 million–$50 million range. At the outset, such a high price tag favors Porter and Schiff—both of whom are prolific fundraisers. After decades serving in a safe seat, Lee’s fundraising chops could be a bit rusty. But whichever candidate secures the backing of the teachers and nurses unions in the state will have a consequential leg up in the Senate race. Then there is Governor Gavin Newsom. After surviving a 2021 recall with 61.9% of the vote, Newsom’s popularity remains strong in the Golden State. Thus far, he has not waded into the race. His public declaration that he would appoint a Black woman to the Senate if a seat opened up is really the one indicator to date of where Newsom’s support might end up.
The race will be an exercise in contrasts, likely to foment fissures within the Democratic Party as the candidates seek to differentiate themselves from one another. “None of these candidates’ records are so set and clear that they can be put in a specific box other than that of ‘Democrat,’” Szabo adds.