California’s Shadow Senate Campaign Is Already Spilling Out Into the Light

A progressive favorite. The hero of the hashtag Resistance. Capitol Hill’s liberal conscience. The would-be heir to Bernie Sanders’ movement.

Hollywood itself might not be able to cast a better set of characters for the Golden State’s marquee coming attraction: the developing race for one of its highly coveted U.S. Senate seats.

After four decades in office, 89-year old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is widely expected to announce that she will retire when her term ends in 2024. For California’s deep bench of ambitious Democratic politicians, an open race for Senate is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The opportunity is so tantalizing, in fact, that one of the leading characters jumped as soon as possible to get in the race. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), the lefty favorite, launched her campaign for Senate last week, vowing to run regardless of Feinstein’s plans. Within 24 hours, Porter said she raised over $1 million and notched the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), her mentor and an influential force in Democratic politics.

Three other heavy hitters, meanwhile, are making moves of their own.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led Democrats’ anti-Donald Trump push from Capitol Hill, is gearing up for a bid. Behind the scenes, his team is putting together a campaign staff. According to one source, Schiff is reaching out to the California congressional delegation and other California figures about his campaign, with an eye toward rolling out an impressive list of endorsements when he launches.

Another source familiar with those conversations said a number of Democrats have offered their support proactively to Schiff.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the long-serving de facto dean of House progressives, has reportedly told colleagues she’s running, but has yet to make an official announcement. And Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), the ambitious Sanders ally, is seriously considering a campaign as well, though sources close to him aren’t sure what he will do.

Others may, of course, join in, too.

No matter how the eventual field shakes out, California politicos are bracing for a bruising intra-party battle royale. In the state’s election system, the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of party—which means that in this deep blue state, a Democrat-versus-Democrat matchup in November 2024 is not only possible, it’s likely.

In any case, California won’t affect the partisan balance of power in the Senate—but it may become a black hole for Democratic campaign dollars. Some Democrats speculate that having $30 million in the bank is simply the barrier to entry for running a winning campaign in a vast state with 40 million people.

“One could imagine this being an incredibly expensive race, probably breaking all records,” said one Democratic official, adding that Schiff and Porter—two of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers—could probably shatter records even if they were the only two in the race.

The battle is also certain to splinter Democratic loyalties and feature fierce, bitter competition among some of the national party’s most beloved figures. There’s already been an opening act for the coming drama.

Porter launched her campaign not only before Feinstein made a move, but in the middle of a string of severe storms walloping the state.

Pointedly, Schiff leveraged his massive email fundraising list to raise money for storm victims. An anonymous source close to the congressman told NBC News it was an “incredible mistake” for Porter to begin her campaign against the storms’ backdrop. Privately, in California political circles, some dissected Porter’s splashy launch and wondered if she had miscalculated in timing.

For her part, Porter tweeted that she’d work in Congress to secure federal recovery resources. In a Sunday interview on local Fox TV, Porter argued the deadly, historic storms are a reflection of climate change and underscore the “urgency of this moment,” saying the Senate needs members “who are willing to tackle climate change and stand up to big oil.”

Despite the contenders’ differences when it comes to their backgrounds, geographical bases, and styles of politics, the race is not shaping up as a referendum on the kind of Democrat that loyal party voters are excited to support in 2024.

The leading contenders each represent slightly different flavors of progressive—from Schiff’s anti-Trump bona fides and Porter’s Elizabeth Warren-style populism to Khanna’s Sanders-esque positioning and Lee’s old school anti-war progressivism.

Races with little ideological daylight between the candidates, however, can often wind up the most bitter and personal. “All of these little micro-fractures will be blown into huge differences,” said the Democratic official, “but these are pretty similar Democrats.”

Simply by virtue of their national profiles and fundraising ability, insiders believe that Porter and Schiff would be the most formidable candidates, with Schiff perhaps an early frontrunner.

“Schiff’s star power, his unique experience, the fact that he has been tested and put through the ringer in ways no one else has—that makes him the frontrunner,” said the Democratic official.

The prize for victory is a coveted one, and rare to boot. It has been decades since California has seen a crowded and hotly contested Senate primary. Representing the populous, heavily Democratic state in the Senate has traditionally been a perch of considerable influence and power. Feinstein has held her seat for decades and became one of the most consequential legislators in the modern era. Kamala Harris jumped from the Senate to the vice presidency.

While the four main contenders for the seat aren’t surprising—each are well-known legislators with known ambitions for higher office—it isn’t clear who else might jump in. California’s set of statewide officeholders, from governor to lieutenant governor to attorney general, are not believed to be interested in the seat.

Neither are some other ambitious California Democrats: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who ran for president in 2020, confirmed to The Daily Beast on Friday that he has no plans to seek the Senate office.

There are some gaps in the emerging field, however. California is a majority-minority state and the most Latino state in the country—by both size and share of population—yet no Latino Democrat has emerged in the top tier of candidates. (Sen. Alex Padilla, appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 and elected in 2022, is the state’s first Latino senator.)

Schiff and Porter also happen to be from Southern California, Schiff from the Los Angeles area and Porter from Orange County. But California’s political power center has long been the San Francisco Bay Area, where voters and civic organizations have historically been more engaged.

Since the 1960s, at least one of the state’s two senators, and often both, have been from the Bay Area. Khanna represents part of Silicon Valley and the South Bay in Congress, while Lee has represented the liberal strongholds of Oakland and Berkeley since 1998.

Those two Democrats happen to be the current field’s biggest question marks. Lee told fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus that she intends to run, according to Politico, and many believe she is hungry for a shot at the Senate after Newsom considered appointing her to the vacancy left by Harris, a fellow Black woman.

But Lee ended the 2022 election cycle with just over $50,000 in the bank. That means she would need to stand up a massive fundraising effort in order to run a statewide campaign, much less close the gap with Porter—who has nearly $8 million in her House campaign account—and Schiff, who is sitting on a $20 million war chest.

Khanna, meanwhile, is so ambitious that he seems to be equally considering running for the Senate or running for president in the future. The co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, Khanna has positioned himself as a potential heir to his movement. He is a proven fundraiser, and comes into the 2024 election cycle with $5.4 million in the bank.

A source close to Khanna told The Daily Beast the congressman is still considering his options and plans to make a decision in the next few months. In an interview with CNN on Friday, Khanna said that he was waiting to see if Lee, whom he spoke of admiringly, would enter the race.

Some Democrats close to Khanna generally expect he will run for Senate, but could see him bowing out of contention if Lee runs. One Democratic official said they would be surprised if Khanna launched a campaign.

By entering the race so early, Porter might be attempting to scare off potential rivals, particularly those seen as further to the left. Beyond surpassing the million-dollar mark on her first day, Porter was endorsed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization closely aligned with Warren, which also vowed to fundraise for her. Porter herself has done select interviews on local and national television, like MSNBC, talking up the prospect of bringing her trademark hearing-room whiteboard to the Senate.

While Porter currently has the field to herself, she will not have it for long. Feinstein has said she will make her announcement “at the appropriate time,” but it’s unlikely other candidates will wait for the longtime senator’s word before they articulate their own plans.

As the Democratic hopefuls get ready for the contentious road to the March 2024 primary election, observers see key fault lines coming into place. While Schiff and Porter have similar voting records and policy positions, their brands are distinct, said one Democratic operative who has run races in California.

“It’s Porter’s fight against the corporations and for the middle class versus Schiff’s fight against Trump and for democracy,” said the operative. “That’s the real battle.”

Ursula Perano contributed to this report.

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