During Donald Trump’s presidency, few U.S. House members grabbed more headlines than Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California. Schiff’s lead role in Trump’s first impeachment trial and work as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee made him a hero to many liberals and a villain to many conservatives. Now Schiff is looking to parlay his notoriety and accomplishments into a promotion: On Thursday, he announced a bid for California’s safe Democratic Senate seat, held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein since 1992.
While Feinstein hasn’t announced her own plans, the possibility that the 89-year-old might retire has all but guaranteed that Schiff won’t be the only Democrat looking to win the solidly blue seat. Rep. Katie Porter announced her own bid earlier this month, and the field of contenders may only grow: Rep. Barbara Lee reportedly plans to run and Rep. Ro Khanna has publicly expressed interest, too. We wouldn’t normally be this interested in a federal race in a strongly blue state with an undeclared incumbent and a small field (for now), but the developing Senate race in California has a number of wrinkles that will make it pretty interesting, from the primary structure and how expensive the race will be to the state’s geographical and ideological divides.
First, California primaries are set up such that the Senate race could come down to two Democrats. Dating back to 2012, all candidates in California, regardless of party, run on the same ballot and the leading two vote-getters advance to the general election. We don’t yet know how many credible candidates will run from either party, but that could affect who advances to the November election in 2024. Historically, the most likely outcome is that one of these Democrats will meet a Republican in the general election, but that’s not a given: Over the past decade, California’s statewide primaries have sent a pair of Democrats to the general election three times. Of those, two were Senate races: In 2016, now-Vice President Kamala Harris (then California’s attorney general) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez advanced (Harris won the general), and in 2018, Feinstein and then-state Sen. Kevin de León advanced (Feinstein won).
A number of strong Democratic candidates in 2024 could possibly split up the Democratic-leaning vote and the same could fragment the GOP-leaning vote. Over the past decade, Democratic candidates have won an average of 57 percent of the top-two vote across all statewide primaries, compared with the GOP’s 36 percent, so you could have a couple of Democratic candidates win the vast majority of the Democratic primary vote and finish above a splintered field of Republican contenders. In an indication of what’s possible, de León won a spot in the 2018 general election with only 12 percent of the vote, the lowest percentage for a second-place candidate in a statewide top-two primary.
Another factor that will undoubtedly be important is campaign fundraising. Buying television ads isn’t the end-all, be-all in our digital age, but it’s costly in California, which has the second-largest (Los Angeles), 10th-largest (Bay Area) and 20th-largest (Sacramento) television markets in the country, according to Nielsen. Not to mention, California is a huge state in terms of population and geography, so building a statewide campaign won’t be cheap.
This is an area where Schiff has an early edge: He had more than $20 million in his federal campaign account at the end of the 2022 election, thanks to his star power and an easy reelection campaign in his deep-blue seat that didn’t require him to spend most of his campaign war chest.
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This isn’t to say that Schiff’s opponents — declared or potential — can’t raise beaucoup money. Porter brought in more than $25 million for her reelection campaign, second only to now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy among House candidates in the 2022 cycle. But unlike Schiff, Porter had to spend $28 million to narrowly win her competitive district last November. For his part, Khanna hasn’t raised that kind of money, but he represents much of Silicon Valley, America’s technology epicenter and home to a great deal of wealth. Lee may struggle to compete in fundraising terms, but she’s well-known in progressive circles and might be the only prominent Black candidate in the race.
Naturally, ideological divisions could play a role in this race, too. Porter, Khanna and Lee are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Schiff is part of the more centrist New Democratic Coalition. This is mostly reflected in voting records: Schiff falls largely in the middle of the House Democratic caucus, while Khanna and Lee both sit clearly on the left side. Porter, though, is harder to pin down. She’s drawn many eyeballs (and donations) with her withering questioning of corporate honchos in congressional hearings, and she’s campaigning as a progressive. But that profile overshadows a pretty moderate voting record, which probably speaks to the realities of representing a highly competitive district — a challenge faced by none of the other three House members. In theory, the three progressives could split the more left-leaning vote in the primary, improving Schiff’s chances of advancing to the general election. What’s more, California Democrats may be dominant, but they aren’t necessarily that progressive, which means Schiff may be playing to a larger part of the electorate to begin with.
Another wrinkle is California’s northern-southern split in Democratic circles, with the northern region’s population centered around the Bay Area and the southern’s around Los Angeles. In recent years, California’s statewide political offices have been dominated by northern Democrats, including Feinstein, longtime former Sen. Barbara Boxer, Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Sen. Harris. Within this north-south dichotomy, Schiff and Porter both represent parts of Greater Los Angeles while Lee and Khanna represent the Bay Area, so whether both northerners run could matter for how the primary vote shakes out. After all, the tendency for candidates to win votes from their regionally aligned “friends and neighbors” remains a factor in primaries.
But Northern California Democrats’ edge may be diminishing, which could redound to the benefit of Schiff or Porter. After Harris became vice president, Newsom appointed Sen. Alex Padilla — the former California secretary of state and Los Angeles native — who won a full term in 2022. And if you look at the trajectory of primary votes in California, Southern California has recently cast a larger share of Democratic votes in top-two primaries. That hasn’t yet paid huge dividends for statewide candidates from the south, but it could affect the 2024 primary.
At this point, there are a lot more questions than answers about the state of play in California’s much-anticipated 2024 Senate race. But in the months to come, we will be closely monitoring key aspects of the contest.