Will she run or won’t she? Laphonza Butler’s appointment could scramble California Senate race

Laphonza Butler steeples her fingers while speaking at an event.
Laphonza Butler speaks at a 2018 conference in Los Angeles.
(Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Makers)
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The death of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s selection of longtime political operative Laphonza Butler as her short-term replacement have thrust two critical questions to the forefront of the state’s political scene:

Will Butler run for a full term in the Senate in next year’s election? And if she does, how seriously will she shake up the race that is well underway?

The first question remains unanswered; Butler, who said she was asked on Saturday to fill the seat, said she has not decided.


“I genuinely don’t know,” Butler told The Times in her first interview since being appointed. “I want to be focused on honoring the legacy of Sen. Feinstein. I want to devote my time and energy to serving the people of California. And I want to carry her baton with the honor that it deserves and so I genuinely have no idea.”

The second question had political experts divided as they digested the news of her appointment Monday. Whether Butler will serve 15 months and then step down, or enter the race herself, could upend the campaign strategies of the three prominent Democrats already running for Senate: Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank. Butler has deep ties to organizations that could help her mount a serious fundraising operation.

“Butler would be a very formidable candidate who’s capable of making it into the top two,” advancing from the primary to the general election, said Feinstein’s 2018 campaign manager Jeff Millman, citing her fundraising prowess.

But that’s if she plans to run.

“Most people believe that this race is too far along and that to run would be so violative of the democratic process,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran unsuccessfully for California governor in 2018.

“I don’t expect that she will,” he said. “I do think she’ll do a very good job filling the shoes of a trailblazer.”


For the record:

1:56 p.m. Oct. 4, 2023A previous version of this story said Dianne Feinstein was the first woman elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected to the Senate at the same time in 1992, but Feinstein was seated first because she was filling a vacancy.

Feinstein broke barriers as the first woman to represent California in the Senate, and Butler will be the first LGBTQ+ senator from the state. The deadline for her to decide to run in the March primary is Dec. 8, but to be included in the information guides sent to every registered voter, she’d need to file a candidate statement by Nov. 15.

Butler said that Newsom didn’t ask whether she planned to run if selected.

“He said to me that whoever he appointed, he intended to make it clear that he would expect them to do whatever they wanted to do regarding that,” she said.

Laphonza Butler, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointee to the U.S. Senate, says she wants to carry the baton of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Oct. 3, 2023

Her selection comes after Newsom said last month he’d like to see a caretaker in the role, only to backtrack later after criticism from progressives. Lee, who is Black, ripped into the governor, saying that choosing a Black woman for a short-term appointment is “insulting.”

Newsom committed in 2021 to appointing a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat ever came open, an effort to placate frustration by Black leaders after he appointed Sen. Alex Padilla to replace then-Sen. Kamala Harris in the Senate after she was elected vice president. Harris’ departure left the 100-member Senate without a single Black female member.

With Butler’s swearing-in by Harris on Tuesday, there are now four Black senators, a record for a single time in American history.

Despite trailing in the polls and lagging in fundraising, Lee has said her candidacy wasn’t just about positioning herself for an appointment in the event Feinstein left office early, and has been focused on raising enough money and garnering enough support to prevail in the March primary. Lee campaign focus groups and surveys done last month found that most California voters had little awareness about the Senate race and that Lee “will likely only need 27% of the vote to place in the top two,” and advance to the general election, according to a memo from her campaign.

“I am running very hard to win this race,” Lee said on CNN on Monday. “Of course, it would have been great because I did want to fill the vacancy.... But listen, we all have to just focus on what we’re doing.”

Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter
Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Adam Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine.

Calls in recent weeks from members of the Congressional Black Caucus for Newsom to appoint Lee to fill a potential vacancy attracted increased attention to her campaign. The question now is whether she gets a bounce in the polls and will have stronger fundraising numbers. At the end of June, Lee had about $1.4 million in cash on hand, according to federal campaign finance reports.

Asked if she felt pressure to say no in light of the campaign in support of Lee, Butler heaped compliments on the leading candidates.

“There’s at least three top-level Democrats that are in this race, all of whom have been running for a year and all of whom have been incredible public servants,” Butler told The Times — adding that she spoke with Lee after Newsom chose her this weekend.

Both Porter and Schiff have raised far more than Lee. Schiff on Monday announced that he had $32 million in cash on hand after raising $6 million in the third quarter. Porter hasn’t revealed her latest fundraising numbers but had $10.3 million in her campaign account through June.

Lee, Porter and Schiff applauded Newsom’s pick, with the Oakland representative saying she looked “forward to working closely with her to deliver for the Golden State” and Porter issuing a statement praising Butler for “her career standing up for women and working families.”


Political strategists and former elected officials said the fundraising prowess of Porter and Schiff gives them a substantial advantage in the March primary. Butler, they said, could put an operation together and has the chops to raise money quickly, but it would be a tall order.

“I don’t care who you are, or how attractive you are as a candidate, or as a politician, or whatever,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Garry South. “You cannot pull together a viable statewide campaign in a state like California in five months’ time, especially with the holidays in the middle.”

Feinstein’s successor isn’t guaranteed her seats on the Judiciary and Appropriations committees. Her death could change California’s power in Washington.

Sept. 29, 2023

Veteran political strategist Bill Carrick, a longtime advisor to Feinstein, disagreed and said it wouldn’t be too late for another candidate to enter the race.

None of the three leading Democratic candidates has held statewide office before, he said, and polling suggests that they all have relatively low levels of support.

“It’s not like anybody starts with a built-in base,” Carrick said. “I think ... most people don’t know much about any of these people.”

Butler is “extremely intelligent,” Carrick said, and would bring a long and varied resume to the campaign trail, should she decide to run.


That includes more than a decade as the president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which Carrick called the “largest and most politically savvy” labor union in California, as well as her ties to the political fundraising world through Emily’s List, which he said could help her quickly tap into a wide network of potential donors.

Emily’s List is a powerhouse political organization that funnels millions of dollars each election cycle to help elect Democratic women who support access to abortion run for office.

“It gives you a large universe of women donors who respond in very efficient ways to fundraising needs,” Carrick said.

Still the power of incumbency and having the title “appointed senator” in a primary where many voters know very little about the candidates is hard to discount, said Sara Sadhwani, a professor of politics at Pomona College.

“At the end of the day, we’re still going to have voters who show up in the March primary to vote for their choice for the presidency who haven’t thought as much about the statewide Senate race,” she said.

“What the incumbency advantage really brings is a sense that people assume you’re doing well in your job and want to put you back in there to continue your work. That being said people also know Adam Schiff. People also know Kate Porter. People also know Barbara Lee. This is where the campaign finance comes into play.”


If Butler were to launch a Senate run, her campaign support system — financial or otherwise — would probably rely heavily on the organizations where she worked previously. The endorsements of Emily’s List and SEIU 2015 will be coveted by the already declared candidates.

“Those three I’m sure have deep relationships with the very entities that she comes out of,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis — who has yet to endorse in the Senate race. “Obviously she’ll get a lot of attention in the short term. On the other hand, I can tell you how difficult it is to get well known in a state of 39 million people. It takes years and years.”

Whether she runs for a full term or not, it’s clear that Butler’s star is rising in California politics — and the coming months may not be the last time she holds or seeks elected office.

“Whether or not she chooses to exercise her right to file as a candidate in the next 60 days remains to be seen,” said a person connected to the California labor community who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, “but I don’t think this is the last time we will see her potentially put her name in the ring for elected office.”

Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.