How California political power could shift after Feinstein
Southern California may return as California’s political epicenter after Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires next year. The congressional candidates vying to succeed him and the vacancies their campaigns have created offer opportunities for incumbents who are younger, more liberal and more rooted in Southern California.
Younger, more liberal, more Southern-heavy: California’s political demographics are changing, especially as two of the political lions leave the scene. For generations, the Bay Area has punched above its weight in terms of influence, and California’s political standing has grown — and aged — with it. This is changing.
Just two years ago, all three offices in California – the governorship and both Senate seats – were held by Bay Area Democrats (Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris). The governorship still remains in Bay Area hands, but Sen. Alex Padilla, a veteran of Los Angeles politics, holds Harris’ seat and the race to replace Feinstein, who announced last month that she will not seek a seventh term, includes two southern dreadnoughts. California Candidates.
The Senate race, on the other hand, has touched off the joke of replacing those who would replace Feinstein. In almost every case, congressional seats would be filled by new incumbents who are younger, more liberal, or more Southern California-oriented — sometimes a combination.
Gov. Gavin Newsom took office in 2019, maintaining San Francisco’s grip on the governor’s office, though he replaced the iconoclastic Brown with a younger, more determined and predictably liberal Democrat.
With Feinstein preparing to close out her storied career, the trend is set to continue.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the best-funded and best-known of Feinstein’s potential successors, would shift power south. He was a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, and his congressional district spans Los Angeles, Glendale, and Pasadena.
The same would be true for Congresswoman Katie Porter, a younger member of Congress who won her Orange County seat in 2018, part of a wave of Democratic victories born out of disgust for then-President Donald Trump. Porter, known for her tough and populist questioning of congressional witnesses, would represent a more liberal senator than Feinstein, as well as a more southern senator.
Both Schiff, 62, and Porter, 49, are quite young compared to Feinstein, who will be over 90 when she leaves office.
The third leading candidate for Feinstein’s seat is Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland but grew up in the San Fernando Valley. At 76, she’s hardly a teenager, though significantly younger than Feinstein, and she’s a prominent liberal.
Dianne Feinstein remained firmly committed to working across the board even as the party grew in the Senate. As voters begin to ponder her successor’s political ideals, some argue that California will be best served by someone who can maintain that spirit.
California’s changing demographics and widening wealth gap have inspired liberal voters to push for a more progressive U.S. senator to succeed longtime Democrat Dianne Feinstein in 2024.
Columnist Dan Walters unpacks the happenings in California each week.
To run for the Senate, those congressmen are giving up their seats in the House of Representatives and, again, they are likely to be followed by incumbents as liberal as they are, and often younger (geography is less important for House seats, as they are geographically more compact). In Schiff’s case, for example, a large field of candidates has emerged — he was first elected to the seat in 2001, so this is the first opportunity in more than 20 years to win it without taking by Schiff. They include moderate Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino and more progressive candidates like Nick Melvoin, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School Board; former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is endorsed by LA Mayor Karen Bass; and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman.
Lee is among the most liberal members of Congress. She was famously the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization to use military force after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, so it will be hard to find a successor to her left. But her Oakland congressional district isn’t about to elect a conservative or even a moderate. Going forward, the seat will almost certainly be held by a liberal who is younger than Lee.
Only in Porter’s case is a shift to the right a distinct possibility, and even there it’s a longshot. Porter was the first Democrat to ever win her seat in Orange County, and she has had to fight to keep it even as redistricting moved her from the 45th to the 47th district.
In 2020, she defeated Republican Scott Baugh by about 9,000 votes. Baugh has announced plans to run again now that Porter is eyeing the Senate, though he will face stiff competition from state Sen. Dave Min, a progressive who has Porter’s support and the advantage of running in a presidential year, who seeks to increase turnout and help Democrats.
All of this gives the progressive and southern wings of the California Democratic Party much to cheer about.
Jerry Brown was sworn in as California Secretary of State by former US Chief Justice Earl Warren in ceremonies on January 4, 1971, with former Governor Pat Brown looking on. Photo by Associated Press
Still, there is mourning along with elation—nostalgia for a politics that sublimated partisanship under progress. This is an idea that once defined California. His practical master was Earl Warren, a progressive Republican who had roots in both the South and the North—born in Los Angeles, raised in Bakersfield, drawn first to politics in Alameda County—and who commanded California politics in 1940s and early 1950s.
“Leadership, not politics,” was Warren’s campaign slogan and guiding principle during his three consecutive terms as governor.
The next generation of California political leaders, already taking shape, will be more like the electorate — younger, more liberal, more rooted in Southern California. He is likely to stand firm on immigrants, demand better wages for workers and health care for all. These leaders will not tolerate symbolic border walls, corporate malfeasance or police abuse.
But Warren’s legacy—carried on by Brown and Feinstein, each in his own way—of independence from party orthodoxy and leadership before politics gave the state balanced budgets, gun control, wilderness and coastal protection, and a robust response to climate change, often. owning the politics of the middle.
As veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick noted, “they did great things.” These ambitions can suffer as well.
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