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Your guide to the California U.S. Senate election: The race to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Individual photos of Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, Steve Garvey and Barbara Lee.
The leading candidates to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein are, clockwise from top left: Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, former Dodgers and Padres star Steve Garvey — the top Republican in the race — and Rep. Barbara Lee.
(Los Angeles Times)
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California’s only statewide political race in the 2024 election is over who will replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein in Washington.

Feinstein died last year after having announced that she would not run for another term. Her departure set in motion California’s first Senate election without an incumbent since 2016, and several high-profile Democratic members of Congress quickly jumped into the fray.

When Feinstein died in September, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed former Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler to serve out most of the remainder of her term in the Senate, which expires next January, until someone else is elected. Butler decided not to run for the seat.

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Who are the candidates?

Like many open statewide races, it’s a crowded contest. There will be 27 people on the ballot this March, according to the California secretary of state’s office, and they include a former baseball player, a chiropractor, a former television news anchor and an art dealer — not to mention Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank. The three Democratic members of Congress and former Dodger Steve Garvey — who is a Republican — make up the front-runners in polling. A January survey showed that Schiff leads among likely voters, followed by Porter and Garvey.

For a full list of the candidates and their websites, click here.

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Why you have to vote twice for Senate

On the March primary ballot, voters will be asked to vote on two Senate races. Since Butler will serve as one of California’s two U.S. senators only until someone else is elected, the first race will decide who will hold the seat for the remainder of Feinstein’s unexpired term — from the date of the general election, Nov. 5, through the end of the term on Jan. 3, 2025. The second Senate race will determine who serves the next full six-year term as California’s junior senator, from January 2025 through January 2031.

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Can a Republican win? Probably not.

No Republican running for statewide office in California has won since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a second term and Steve Poizner was elected state insurance commissioner.

Garvey, who has never run for public office before, has been rising in the polls and was in third place in a January survey. Under California’s top-two primary system, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the March primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of their political party or percentage of the vote.

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California’s U.S. Senate contest is among the most competitive and expensive in the nation. Voters will also weigh in on legislative and local contests and a multi-billion-dollar ballot measure.

Feb. 1, 2024

Garvey, who told The Times he twice voted for Donald Trump but had no opinion about who was responsible for the violent pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has said little about Trump’s political agenda.

Support for Garvey has nearly doubled since August, evidence that he might have enough momentum to consolidate the Republican vote and attract some “no party preference” voters for a strong showing in the March 5 primary.

Republicans make up about 24% of registered voters in the state; Democrats account for 47% of registered voters.

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Age as a factor

Declining mental acuity and a diminished physical capacity were much discussed during Feinstein’s final term in the Senate. Last year, a prolonged absence from the Senate gave more voice to frustration from many voters in California who thought she had stuck around too long. At the time of her death, Feinstein had been the oldest sitting senator.

Two of the highest-profile candidates running to succeed Feinstein, Garvey and Lee, are over 70. Lee, 77, faced questions about her age as she traversed the state last year. Some donors were concerned that if she were to prevail she’d be well into her 80s by the time she would be eligible for reelection. She’s maintained a vigorous travel schedule and held events up and down California trying to boost her poll numbers. Garvey is 75.

In a year when the two nominees for president are likely to be men in their late 70s and early 80s, the question of age is top of mind for voters.

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Israel-Hamas war

No issue is dividing Democrats more than Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Lee, who was the lone vote against authorizing the use of force by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was quick to say she wanted to see a cease-fire in the region. She opposes more “unconditional” weapons sales to Israel and believes the U.S. must push for more diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

“A conditional ceasefire is not a ceasefire at all,” she said in a written statement. “A true ceasefire is not only possible, it is the most effective and humane path forward.”

Schiff has been the most pro-Israel candidate of the leading Democrats in the race. He supports continued U.S. aid to the Israeli military, including “funding and equipment to resupply missile defense capabilities.” The day after the Oct. 7 attack, Schiff offered his “unequivocal support for the security and the right of Israel to defend itself.”

Hamas’ attack on Israel has highlighted the differences among the foreign policy instincts — and experience — of the leading Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in California.

Oct. 26, 2023

He now says he supports “humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow aid into Gaza and to get hostages out, but cannot support a permanent ceasefire that would perpetuate Hamas terrorist control of Gaza while they are threatening to attack Israel again.”

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Porter said in a written statement in December she wanted to see Israel “working toward a lasting bilateral ceasefire in Gaza.” She says she doesn’t support unconditional aid to the country, adding that “there must be robust discussion about what military aid we’re providing Israel, how it’ll be used, and what the end game is that’ll bring about enduring peace and a two-state solution.”

Garvey says that the United States should continue to provide military aid to Israel and shouldn’t pressure Israel into an immediate cease-fire.

“Know one thing, that as one of our greatest allies, we will stand by you at all costs and at all times,” Garvey told Fox, referring to Israel, days after the Hamas attack.

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Same, but different

The three leading Democrats are very similar when it comes to their voting record in Congress. During this latest legislative session, a ProPublica analysis found that Porter and Lee agreed on 96% of congressional votes, while Porter and Schiff agreed on 98% and Lee and Schiff agreed on 97%. They all support more aid for Ukraine, “Medicare for all” and repealing the filibuster in the Senate.

Garvey said he would support more aid for Ukraine that is “based on some metric of success and doesn’t just prolong the status quo.”

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“We have to be responsible with our involvement and cannot commit to funding the war forever,” he added.

One of the few clear policy differences among the Democrats is Porter’s position on earmarks, which she opposes. Both Lee and Schiff are enthusiastic supporters of this traditional method of bringing increments of federal funding back to their communities.

Last year, one other key fissure was how the Democrats voted on a deal between President Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to suspend the nation’s borrowing limit until 2025 and impose cuts on certain federal programs that are popular among Democrats. Lee and Porter both voted against the deal. Schiff said he reluctantly voted in favor to avoid “a disastrous default.”

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Related coverage

The top four candidates vying to represent California in the U.S. Senate squared off Tuesday for the final debate before the March 5 primary.

Feb. 21, 2024

Two of Garvey’s children say he has declined to meet with them, while his eldest daughter says he cut her and her children off without explanation.

Feb. 1, 2024

Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Lee’s quarter-century in the House has been defined by sometimes lonesome pursuits. She says her stances have proved prescient over time.

Feb. 12, 2024

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A blunt demeanor, professorial intellect and sometimes polarizing ways have defined her three terms as an outspoken member of Congress from a competitive Orange County district.

Feb. 2, 2024

The Burbank congressman and Senate candidate, known to the nation for the impeachment inquiry into the ex-president, has long been driven by the pursuit of justice.

Feb. 9, 2024

In California’s battle for a U.S. Senate seat, ex-baseball player and GOP candidate Steve Garvey has raised far less money than his Democratic rivals, filings show.

Feb. 1, 2024

As the the state hurtles towards the 2024 Senate election, many Latino voters in rural California feel overlooked — more than even those living in the Bay Area or in Los Angeles.

Nov. 16, 2023

L.A. Times Editorial Board Endorsements

The Times’ editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.

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How and where to vote

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Read more California election guides

Gov. Gavin Newsom crafted the measure to reform California’s mental health system, including a $6.4-billion bond for new facilities.

Feb. 1, 2024

Democrats Mike Feuer, Laura Friedman and Anthony Portantino are among the leading candidates to succeed Schiff in a very blue district.

Feb. 1, 2024

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