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California’s 2024 U.S. Senate race could be a hot one

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks with an aide.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks with an aide as she leaves the Senate floor after a vote Wednesday on federal legislation protecting same-sex marriage.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
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Yes, it’s too early to talk about California’s 2024 election — everyone is still having fever dreams about the vote less than two weeks ago. Ballots are still being tallied. Lawns are still pocked with 2022 campaign signs. Arizona Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake hasn’t conceded defeat. But if Donald Trump can launch his 2024 comeback campaign for president this week, everything is fair game. Here we go, into the abyss.

The comforting news is that California’s statewide ballot will be much thinner in 2024 than it was this year.

The only major statewide political election will be for the U.S. Senate. California senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term ends at the beginning of 2025, and it’s very possible that, after serving in the upper chamber since 1992, her current term may be her last. Speculation already is swirling in those dark corners of Washington that Feinstein, 89, may step down even earlier, allowing Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint her replacement, but Feinstein has a reputation for defying the whims and wishes of the D.C. chattering class.

Lest voters forget, the California Democratic Party didn’t even endorse Feinstein in 2018 — the last time she ran for reelection. The Democrats backed then-state Senate President Kevin de León, who lost to Feinstein in the general election and has since found himself in hot water because of a leaked recording of Los Angeles City Council members making racist remarks.

‘It’ll be a real free-for-all’

For the past year there has been a string of news reports about Feinstein’s apparent cognitive decline, including an article in her hometown San Francisco Chronicle describing her memory as “rapidly deteriorating.” Last month, Feinstein also said she would forgo being elevated to the post of Senate president pro tempore, third in line to be president and a role that would traditionally go to her as the senior member of the majority party.

Both only added to the belief that Feinstein will not run for reelection in 2024, opening up a vacancy for one of the most coveted political posts in the most populous state in the union.

“If Dianne chooses not to run again, there’s going to be a scrum, there’ll be a real free-for-all,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist and publisher of the “California Target Book,” a chronicle of state politics. “There are a lot of very ambitious players in California who would give anything to have one of those two seats. So, yeah, there would be a lot of contenders.”

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So who would top the field? That’s hard to say when you look at the launching pads of relatively recent California Senate race winners, Sragow said.

Feinstein was the former mayor of San Francisco. Vice President Kamala Harris was serving as California attorney general when elected to the Senate in 2016. Harris’ replacement, Alex Padilla, was serving as secretary of state when Newsom appointed him to the post in 2021 and he easily won his first election this month. Barbara Boxer was a Marin County congresswoman before she joined the Senate in 1993. Pete Wilson stepped up from the San Diego mayor’s office in 1982. S.I. Hayakawa was a 70-year-old English professor and acting president of San Francisco State when elected in 1976.

“It’s tough to say. Part of this depends on their funding base, which has a very direct impact on the outcome,” Sragow said. “It’s pretty tough to conclude that there is a magic political base from which to run.”

Naming names

There are a few suspects out there.

Four members of the California congressional delegation were among the top money raisers in the House of Representatives in 2021-22 — Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats Adam Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine; and Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. All four could be top Senate contenders who, at the very least, could make the cut for the 2024 general election.

Pelosi has chosen to step down as leader of the Democratic caucus and it’s highly doubtful she would run for Senate. As a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, it’s doubtful McCarthy would have any chance of winning. He’s also been nominated to be the next House speaker, a post he’s sought for years, so the odds of him running for Senate are slim to none. As for the two Democrats, well, the odds are higher.

Schiff became a nationwide star among Democrats for his role as the lead prosecutor in the first impeachment of Trump, and raised $22 million, according to the watchdog website Open Secrets. Porter, known for eviscerating CEOs during congressional oversight hearings, collected a wee bit more, $22.6 million.

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Closer to home, there’s an abundance of sitting Democrats who’ve already proven they can win statewide: Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, Controller Betty Yee, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and state Supt. of Instruction Tony Thurman. There’s also U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, a former state attorney general and longtime member of Congress.

California also is not lacking in ambitious politicians at the local level. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti flirted with a presidential run in 2020. Now that he’s about to end his final term at City Hall and his appointment as U.S. ambassador to India remains in limbo, he’ll have plenty of time to mount a Senate campaign. Given the success of Feinstein and Wilson in making the leap, other big-city California mayors may toy with the thought as well, including London Breed of San Francisco, Libby Schaaf of Oakland, Todd Gloria of San Diego and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento.

Every member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors already represents roughly 2 million people, a population greater than at least a dozen states, so don’t count any of them out.

What about Newsom?

After President Biden and Harris won in 2020, speculation was rampant over whether Newsom would appoint himself to fill Harris’ Senate seat. Other governors have gone down that path. Newsom instead tapped Padilla.

Newsom did catch some political heat because Harris was the only Black woman serving in the Senate and, with her departure, there would be none. In response, Newsom vowed to nominate a Black woman for the Senate should Feinstein resign and even told MSNBC host Joy Reid that he had a few names in mind.

If Feinstein serves out the remainder of her term and decides not to run again, though, that presents a different situation entirely for the governor.

“He clearly is a risk taker and is very comfortable, as they say, listening to his own voice,” Sragow said.

Editor’s note

There’s going to be a few changes in the Los Angeles Times Sacramento bureau next month. Laurel Rosenhall has been named Sacramento bureau chief, and I have been tapped to be assistant editor.

Rosenhall joined The Times editorial board in 2021 as a writer focusing on California politics, policy and power. Before coming to The Times, she was a founding reporter at CalMatters, the nonprofit digital news venture that launched in 2015. Previously, she spent more than a dozen years covering politics and education at the Sacramento Bee.

As for me, I’ve been serving as the interim Sacramento bureau chief/California politics editor, overseeing the newsroom’s coverage of Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Legislature and California’s 2022 election.

Also, in last week’s California Politics Newsletter, we reported that supporters of Proposition 30 outspent opponents of the measure by a 5-1 margin. According to the California secretary of state’s most recent numbers, supporters spent $44 million and opponents spent $26 million.

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Finally, the California Politics Newsletter will be on hiatus next Friday for the holiday.

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Until next time, send your comments, suggestions and news tips to capolitics@latimes.com.

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