Before California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has even announced her retirement from public office, two prominent progressives have already made plans to run for her likely-to-be-vacant seat.
A battle of liberal evolution is unfolding as newer talent and the established guard on the left vie for the same spot, tempted by the chance to move the Senate in their direction. So far, the conversation is centered around two congresswomen, Katie Porter from Orange County and Barbara Lee from Oakland, with room for more names in the mix.
While Lee has not officially teed off a campaign, she told colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus this week that she intends to run, as The Hill and other outlets reported. Porter, meanwhile, got out ahead of Feinstein by preemptively launching a bid, shoring up initial support and surprising some Democrats with her springboarding.
The early angling shows progressives’ desire to expand beyond the House — where their power is highly concentrated — and to help change the composition of the chamber as the party grapples with what it could look like in 2024, and what it will take to get there.
“Lee vs. Porter is really tough,” said Max Berger, a progressive strategist and former campaign staffer for both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). “I don’t think progressives can win if both stay in.”
The elephant in the room is the simple fact that Feinstein, who turns 90 in June, has not yet said she plans to retire, and Democrats aren’t sure when to expect a decision. But that hasn’t stopped liberal lawmakers from maneuvering behind the scenes and more recently in public toward what’s expected to be a crowded primary.
Porter and Lee are both members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and have made a significant imprint on the party’s left wing. Porter is a deputy chair, and Lee is chair emeritus of the group in the House.
Lee, 76, an anti-interventionist crusader, became widely known for standing alone in opposition to the Iraq War at a time of rampant hawkishness. She went on to become a staunch ally of the activist class, often working alongside advocates on causes like income inequality and environmental justice that have informed the party’s direction.
If she enters the race, she is expected to have support from some progressives close to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with one Sanders ally telling The Hill she’ll likely get the backing of many local Black leaders and grassroots activists. A lot hinges on her forthcoming plans, but Democrats already see a powerful incentive for a potential Lee candidacy: if elected, she would be the only sitting Black female senator in office.
“Katie Porter is brilliant, but I think this should be Barbara Lee’s moment,” said Charlotte Clymer, a writer and Democratic political strategist. “Congresswoman Lee would be phenomenal in the Senate and has demonstrated, time after time, that she has the moral clarity to lead in ways few other elected officials can. She’ll have my full support.”
Others see Porter as representing a more forward-looking faction of the left. Her supporters point to her work to break up monopolies and tax the country’s wealthiest people, and she already has a powerful mentor in Warren in the Senate.
The Orange County congresswoman is a disciple of Warren’s, who she considers a close confidant from their time at Harvard Law School. And the support is mutual. Warren was the first senator to endorse Porter, throwing her full weight behind the 49-year-old Democrat.
Porter has also shown an aptitude for fundraising. Just a day after making her plans for higher office public, she reportedly raised more than $1 million, showing early financial momentum from small dollar donations.
“On a gut level, Katie knows how to challenge power on behalf of families,” said Adam Green, who co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is supporting Porter and also backed Warren’s bids.
For all the early interest, Porter is not expected to clear the field entirely. She’s faced competitive elections in past cycles, even as recently as during the November midterms, when she only narrowly won her reelection campaign against Republican challenger Scott Baugh, a former state assemblyman.
Now a Senate candidate, she wears that hard-fought win as a battle scar, readying for what’s expected to be a tense primary and possibly challenging general election. “I’ve always had tough campaigns and I’ve always won, and I hope this will be the same result,” Porter told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough after her announcement.
Early into 2023, as Democrats remain divided over degrees of progressivism — with leftists like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) standing on one side of the spectrum, and more traditional liberals like Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) on the other — the California Senate race could draw sharper contrasts between visions for the party.
It’s also likely to raise new questions about electability. “I prefer Lee, but I think Porter is probably a stronger statewide candidate,” Berger said.
Porter and Lee also have nearly three decades between them, adding a generational component to the equation. And in the state where former Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was able to ascend quickly from senator to vice president, there are also unknowns about how identity and diversity will play into voters’ minds as the primary gets underway.
“I think it’s gonna be one of those races where [it] doesn’t easily break down on ideological lines,” said Eddie Vale, a longtime Democratic strategist who’s worked with political and issue advocacy campaigns.
Vale suggested instead that Democrats will have to contend with things like “geography, gender and race all layered on top.”
There’s also the possibility of blurring the lines between progressives versus moderates as even more contenders are expected to announce. Other leading Democrats, including Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.), 62, who previously chaired the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), 46, an economic populist and progressive leader from Silicon Valley, are also mulling bids.
For the time being, many Democrats are keeping their plans under the radar. “Right now we’re focused on the flooding and historic weather conditions,” an operative close to one high-profile progressive in the state said.
But there’s only so long that can last, particularly as the primary itself is political catnip for many on the left who see the chance to replace one of their biggest Democratic foes as highly appealing.
Progressives have long sparred with Feinstein over deep differences in ideology. While many Democrats and moderate allies applaud her service in office, others from a younger generation have often expressed frustration with her tactics and goals as being misguided.
In one illuminating instance, young climate activists confronted Feinstein about her unwillingness to support a Green New Deal plan that would, in theory, shake up the country’s response to rising temperatures and global environmental threats. Confronted by Sunrise Movement advocates, Feinstein responded, “I know what I’m doing” and essentially informed the protesters that they weren’t aware of the rigors of getting elected and governing.
The episode was just one of several moments that placed progressives and the veteran senator at odds, creating an atmosphere where several high-profile Democrats are not-so-secretly eager to replace her.
“During Feinstein’s 30 years representing the Golden State, she supported the Iraq War, voted for the Bush tax cuts for the ultra wealthy, and refused to end the filibuster,” said Joe Sanberg, a progressive activist and donor based in Los Angeles, who is also thought to be considering a run for the Senate seat.
“Working Californians need a leader who will prioritize raising the minimum wage, passing universal healthcare, and centering this north star,” he said. “Everyone who works should be able to afford life’s basic needs.”
2024 California Senate race
Congressional Black Caucus