Democrats are bracing for a fractious race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), with high-profile party members pitted against one another along battle lines formed by both identity and ideology.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has already drawn the support of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the race, while Rep. Katie Porter, a progressive darling, raised $1.3 million in the first 24 hours after announcing her candidacy. Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is planning to jump into the race later this month.
With the race putting a sharp focus on the divisions within a party looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, observers are expecting a tough — and expensive — fight.
“I see that as kind of like an arms race that almost mutuals out in the end,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Porter, regarding the money being raised on all sides. “The question is what message are you advancing after you raise the resources?”
Schiff, a member of the House Democratic leadership and ally of some of the most powerful and mainstream figures in the party, closed 2022 with nearly $21 million on hand in his campaign accounts. Porter had over $7.6 million in her campaign accounts at the end of 2022 and Lee, who filed to run this week, lagged behind with less than $100,000 in her accounts.
As the Democrats gear up for the campaign against each other, officials in California see the race amplifying not just ideological differences, but also issues of race, gender and identity.
Californians have had a woman representing them in the Senate for over 30 years, since Feinstein was elected in 1992. Since then, the likes of former Sen. Barbara Boxer and now-Vice President Kamala Harris were also sent to the Senate by California voters. It’s a trend that some in the Golden State don’t see breaking.
“I think the lens, if you will, of having an African American female representing us in the Senate, representing California, could be huge,” said Susan Hildreth, who is the head of the Democrats of Rossmoor, one of the most influential Democratic groups in northern California. “I don’t want to say that the guys don’t have a chance, they certainly do. But I think there are different lenses that people will use beyond progressive or centrist to help them make their decision about who they’re going to support.”
Laura Lowell, the chair of the Calaveras County Democratic Central Committee, echoed the sentiment that it would be tough for some voters to not have a woman representing the state in the chamber.
“In my adult voting memory, I only remember having female senators until Sen. (Alex) Padilla,” Lowell said. “And I will miss that if we lost a female representing California in the Senate. I just think that would be so, so disappointing.”
But others point to Porter’s ability to inspire grassroots activism, which has helped propel her to strong fundraising performances in previous election cycles and has helped her hold down a House seat that is in a competitive district. The politician-activist relationship is one that has been important in the progressive movement.
“I have heard her speak to what it means to knock on someone’s door and not to just drop a leaflet… but to speak to the issues that are important to the activists and to connect with the voter,” said Ada Briceño, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, which Porter represents. “There is no substitute for that. That is a necessary part of campaigning. And she gets it, and she inspires people to want to do that.”
One advantage that Schiff has compared to his rivals is the sheer amount of national attention he has gotten during the administration of former President Trump. Schiff was the lead prosecutor of the former president’s first impeachment proceedings and was a member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“He jumped on stage and did a lot of MSNBC in the last few years,” Green said.
Green said Porter would be focused on building a strong ground game ahead of the 2024 election, something that he thinks won’t be matched by a candidate like Schiff.
“She is very intent on… really funding a ground game and recruiting a volunteer grassroots ground game to make the case one-on-one with voters at the door,” Green said. “I don’t think that’s something that will at all be replicated by Schiff.”
While Democrats contend with the ideological and identity divides in the race, some operatives in the state are asking themselves what comes after the Senate race, with House bailing to run for statewide office.
While Lee and Schiff both serve districts where they are safe from GOP competition in general elections, Porter has run close races against Republicans in both of her election campaigns. Lowell said the question over what seats that Democrats in the state think they can protect in future cycles may play into the 2024 Senate race. “Having observed the workings of this machine, it makes sense to me that they’re making those calculations and thinking it through,” Lowell said. “Because we would need to protect Katie’s seat. We can’t afford to lose another seat in California