Feinstein is back, and so is the California Senate race

Feinstein is back, and so is the California Senate race

By returning to DC today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein avoided blowing up California’s Senate race.

The possibility that Feinstein might resign early loomed larger with each passing week that she was absent from the Senate, recuperating from shingles. That could have fundamentally altered the ongoing race to replace her in the Senate — a source of uncertainty and trepidation for the candidates who were already deep into campaigning for the 2024 election when Feinstein headed to the hospital.

Say an ailing Feinstein had stepped down before completing her term and Gov. Gavin Newsom needed to appoint a replacement. Unless he selected a true caretaker who was fully committed to not seeking a full term, Newsom could have given someone an essentially insurmountable edge over the rest of the field.

Rep. Barbara Lee stood to benefit from that outcome more than Reps. Adam Schiff or Katie Porter. Newsom angered some Black voters by replacing the newly elevated Vice President Kamala Harris with Sen. Alex Padilla, the state’s first Latino senator — a choice that left the Senate without any Black women. The governor later committed to appointing a Black woman if he got another Senate pick. Lee was vetted to replace Harris and was widely seen as the logical choice if Feinstein stepped down.

Feinstein had been facing increasing calls to return or resign, including from some Democratic colleagues, as her prolonged absence prevented the Senate Judiciary Committee from advancing judicial nominations and threatened further chaos as a nearly-tied Senate faces a looming debt fight.

But now it looks more likely that she stays through the end of her term, preserving the basic dynamics of the Senate race to date. Lee, Porter, and Schiff have all rolled out star endorsers and worked to map a path through a complex primary. Assuming Feinstein holds on, none of them will be getting Newsom’s nod or the awesome powers of incumbency.

And what of Feinstein’s imprimatur? She hasn’t endorsed a favored successor yet or indicated she will, although she is closer to Schiff than the other contenders. But her blessing may not move the needle. Indeed, it could be a liability with the many progressive voters who are ready to put the Feinstein era in the past and shift California’s Senate representation to the left.

This article first appeared in an edition of the California Playbook PM newsletter.


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