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Top One Magazine

California Dems are eyeing Feinstein’s seat — but they’re not talking about it

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s potential successors don’t want to talk about it.

Ambitious Democrats are preparing for what happens when the 88-year-old California senator’s seat becomes available for the first time in a generation — a sea change for California politics that would likely launch a frenzied intraparty rush for the coveted post. Most everyone is operating under the assumption that Feinstein will not run for reelection in 2024. Contenders are stockpiling cash and quietly assessing their options.

A general reluctance to publicly encourage Feinstein to step down hasn’t stopped people from keeping open lines of communication to Gov. Gavin Newsom in the event the senator resigns and the Democratic governor gets to handpick her replacement.

“All the folks who are interested do a very good job keeping in touch,” said a Newsom adviser who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

An open Senate seat is a rare opportunity that, in deep-blue California, effectively offers lifetime tenure to whichever Democrat prevails. A number of rising stars in the House, most prominently Rep. Katie Porter and Rep. Adam Schiff, have the name recognition and campaign war chests that could position them to win the seat and stay there for decades. But no one wants to be seen nudging Feinstein toward the exits.

“What do you gain from that?” asked Courtni Pugh, who managed then-Democratic state Senate leader Kevin de León’s unsuccessful 2018 challenge to Feinstein. “At the end of the day, people want to be respectful.”

Privately, Democrats around the state have reacted with a mixture of sadness, frustration and resignation to an explosive San Francisco Chronicle story published last week in which Feinstein’s colleagues detailed the long-serving senator’s perceived cognitive decline. That story, which bolstered previous reporting by POLITICO about Feinstein’s capacity to carry out her duties, consumed California political circles for days.

“I get calls from people saying, ‘Who can I call to talk about this? Who can talk to her? We need to do something,’” said a Democratic political consultant who has worked with Feinstein, also granted anonymity.

Publicly, it’s a different matter. Feinstein has remained adamant that she intends to serve out the rest of her term, saying she has continued to deliver for her constituents. Pushing her to the exits before 2024 could backfire on the ambitious Democrats who would like to claim her mantle. Even as Feinstein has slid to a career polling nadir, no one wants to draw opposition from her political sphere or cause her to endorse a rival.

“The real question is whether I’m still an effective representative for 40 million Californians, and the record shows that I am,” Feinstein told the Chronicle last week, adding that colleagues have not expressed doubts to her.

Part of the calculus involves maintaining California’s influence in Washington. Feinstein and her defenders have long stressed how critical her seniority is to ensuring California’s priorities translate into federal policy. Sen. Alex Padilla, whom Newsom appointed to replace Vice President Kamala Harris, sits near the bottom of the Senate hierarchy after taking office in 2021. Whoever replaces Feinstein would join Padilla by the foot of the ladder.

“Senator Feinstein is an essential leader for California,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “She is among the most effective members in the history of the Senate, and I deeply appreciate her work in Washington to address our most important problems, including homelessness, transportation and water.”

A representative for Porter declined to comment on a possible Senate run and said the congresswoman is focused on defending her seat in 2022. A representative for Schiff, who is also mulling a House leadership bid, lauded Feinstein and said Schiff supports “her continued service on behalf of all Californians.”

Both lawmakers have raised considerable sums; Schiff has $18.1 million in cash on hand, and Porter is close behind at $17.8 million. But Schiff’s staff noted the congressman could use the funds to assist other Democrats, and Porter’s staff pointed to a contested House reelection bid.

The Feinstein furor could allow Newsom to continue playing kingmaker, deepening his imprint on California’s leadership. The governor has already appointed Padilla to a vacant Senate seat, and he has selected California’s attorney general and secretary of state because of resignations. If Feinstein resigns, Newsom would likely choose her successor, instantly cementing that person as the frontrunner to retain the seat. Contenders who failed to win Newsom’s nod would have a far narrower path to the Senate than in an open election.

A Newsom spokesperson noted that the administration does not expect a Senate vacancy before 2024. But should it happen, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland is widely seen as a likely choice, given Newsom’s public commitment to elevating a Black woman should Feinstein step down before her term is up. Lee was a contender for the seat to which Newsom ultimately appointed Padilla.

“It’s something she would remain very interested in,” said Nathan Barankin, a political adviser to Lee. He added that Lee has not spoken directly to Newsom about a potential opening.

Progressive Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, who has cultivated the kind of broader following that could buoy a statewide run, said he would back Lee should she seek the seat — although he did not rule out running if she does not.

“Certainly I would look at that, but it’s unclear,” Khanna said in an interview. “It depends on so many factors, whether I run.”

Democrats want to accord Feinstein the respect they believe she is due after decades of service. There are also practical considerations: People who have worked with or against Feinstein predict that urging her to move on would have the opposite effect.

“The whole history of Dianne Feinstein is whatever people pressure her to do, she won’t do,” said Garry South, a Democratic operative who has worked on major statewide campaigns in California. “So I’m dubious that she decides to call it a day before her term is up.”

Susannah Luthi contributed to this report.

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