TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Like most California political junkies, I’m already looking forward to a vibrant 2024 Senate race. I wrote up the latest development at New York:
In the conservative imagination, California is sort of an evil empire of leftism. It’s where white people have been relegated to a minority for decades; where tree-hugging hippies still frolic; where Hollywood and Big Tech work 24/7 to undermine sturdy American-folk virtues; where rampaging unions and arrogant bureaucrats make it too expensive for regular people to live.
But in truth California’s dominant Democratic Party has as many mild-mannered moderates as it does fiery progressives. One of them, Dianne Feinstein, has held a Senate seat for over 30 years. As the 89-year-old political icon moves toward an almost certain retirement in 2024 (though she now says she won’t announce her intention until next year), another ideological moderate has just announced a bid to succeed her. Los Angeles congressman Adam Schiff, though, has an asset most centrist Democrats (those not named Clinton or Biden, anyway) can’t claim: the rabid hatred of Donald Trump–loving Republicans, giving him the sort of partisan street cred even the most rigorous progressives might envy.
It’s why Schiff begins his 2024 Senate race with something of a strategic advantage. The first-announced candidate in the contest, Congresswoman Katie Porter (also from greater L.A.), is a progressive favorite and more or less Elizabeth Warren’s protégé as a vocal enemy of corporate malfeasance. Another of Schiff’s House colleagues, Oakland-based Barbara Lee, has told people she plans a Senate run as well; Lee is a lefty icon dating back to her lonely vote against the initial War on Terror authorization following September 11. And waiting in the wings is still another member of California’s House delegation, Silicon Valley–based Ro Khanna, who is closely associated with Bernie Sanders and his two presidential campaigns.
Obviously, in a Senate race featuring multiple progressives, the national-security-minded Schiff (who voted for the Iraq war authorization and the Patriot Act early in his House career) might have a distinct “lane,” particularly if he draws an endorsement from Feinstein. (Schiff is already suggesting his campaign has her “blessing.”) But he may poach some progressive votes as well by emphasizing the enemies he’s made. Indeed, his campaign’s first video is mostly a cavalcade of conservatives (especially Donald J. Trump) attacking him.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Schiff is announcing his Senate bid immediately following his expulsion from the House Intelligence Committee by Speaker Kevin McCarthy for his alleged misconduct in investigating Russia’s links with Trump and his campaign (and in making the case for Trump’s impeachment). Schiff was also a steady prosecutorial presence on the January 6 committee that McCarthy and most Republicans boycotted).
Complicating the contest immeasurably is California’s Top Two primary election system. Schiff and his Democratic rivals will not be battling for a party primary win but for a spot in the 2024 general election, given to the top two primary finishers regardless of party affiliation. The Golden State’s Republican Party is so weak that it might not be able to find a candidate able to make the top two in a Senate primary; two Democrats competed in two recent competitive Senate general elections in California (in 2016, when Kamala Harris defeated Loretta Sanchez, and in 2018, when Feinstein trounced Kevin DeLeon). If that’s the case, though, it’s unclear which Democrat might have the edge in attracting Republicans. Porter’s campaign is circulating a poll showing she’d beat Schiff in a hypothetical general election because Republicans really hate Schiff despite his more moderate voting record.
For all the uncertainties about the 2024 Senate field, it is clear that the two announced Democratic candidates will wage a close battle in one arena: campaign dollars. Both Schiff and Porter are legendary fundraisers, though Porter had to dip deeply into her stash of resources to fend off a tougher-than-expected Republican challenge last November. Big remaining questions are whether Lee can finance a viable race in this insanely expensive state with its many media markets, and whether Khanna, with his national Sanders connections and local Silicon Valley donor base, enters the contest. There are racial, gender, and geographical variables too: Until Harris became vice-president, California had long been represented by two Democratic woman from the Bay Area. With Los Angeles–based Alex Padilla now occupying Harris’s old seat, 2024 could produce a big power shift to the south and two male senators.
In any event, nobody is waiting around for Feinstein to make her retirement official before angling for her seat, which means a Senate race that won’t affect the partisan balance of the chamber at all (barring some wild Republican upset) will soak up a lot of attention and money for a long time. At this early point, Schiff’s positioning as the moderate that Republicans fear and despise looks sure to keep him in the spotlight.