With Death Of Legendary Senator Feinstein, Here’s What’s Next For Her Seat

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 6: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on judicial nominations on Capitol Hill September 6, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a political giant and iconic trailblazer for women in politics, died Thursday night, leaving vacant a safe Democratic seat. 

Feinstein had declined physically in recent years, and pledged not to run again in 2024 this February after a shingles diagnosis sidelined her from Congress for months. 

Even before she’d officially bowed out, competition was stiff among ambitious California House Democrats, eager for a shot at one of the safest and most stable jobs in the Senate. Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) have all thrown their hats into the ring for the March 2024 primary. 

But six months out from the primary, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will now have to pick a caretaker for the seat — a decision he’s said publicly he was hoping to avoid, and which will put him in the extraordinary position of having chosen both of California’s senators. He tapped political ally and former secretary of state Alex Padilla to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in December 2020, despite outcry from those who wanted Harris replaced with another Black woman. The Senate currently has none — and only two Black women, Harris and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), have ever been elected to it. 

To address those critiques, Newsom promised to pick a Black woman to hold Feinstein’s seat until the next election if he found himself in that position. He has also vowed not to pick anyone currently running for the seat so as not to tip the scales, a decision for which Lee, a Black woman, publicly condemned him. 

He’ll be under pressure to make the decision very quickly, lacking the multi-week leadup he got to pick Harris’ replacement after she and Joe Biden won the 2020 election. 

Meanwhile, the race for the primary rages on. 

Polling is still relatively scant, but a survey out of Berkeley earlier this month showed Schiff in the lead with likely voters at 20 percent. Porter followed with 17, and Lee trailed with seven. But the poll also captured an unsettled race, with one in three likely voters undecided. 

It mirrors a couple other early polls, which show Schiff up narrowly, by low single digits. A Public Policy Institute of California poll from June, though, showed Porter with a small edge.

Schiff has a clearer advantage with fundraising, at least as of the end of the last quarter in June, when campaigns had to record their hauls. 

He reported $30 million in his coffers then, after raking in just over $8 million in three months. He was likely boosted by House Republicans’ June censure over comments he made during investigations into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. He used the censure in fundraising appeals and to lock down media hits, and enjoyed greater name recognition to begin with after leading the first Trump impeachment in 2020. 

Porter trailed behind with about $10.4 million on hand after raising roughly $3 million. Porter and Schiff are both known for their fundraising acumen, but Porter had to burn millions on her tight reelection race in 2022, while Schiff easily slid to reelection. 

Lee lagged behind both with $1.4 million in her coffers after raising $1 million during the three-month period. 

California has a jungle primary, with the top two vote getters continuing on to the general election, no matter their party. If it’s two Democrats, as seems likely, millions will be burned on the safe blue seat as they compete in the state’s massively expensive media market. If a Republican somehow squeaks through — former MLB MVP and Los Angeles Dodgers legend Steve Garvey has been making noise about running as a Republican — it’ll be virtually impossible for him to seriously contest the Democratic candidate in the heavily blue state.

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