What we’re watching as the 2024 California Senate race takes shape
January 13, 2023
This week on #2024Watch came what felt like a seismic development: Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee both signaled their intent to run for the Senate seat currently held by fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein — whether she decides to run again or no.
The race is sure to be one of the most expensive and followed in the country. With at least two outstanding and distinguished women candidates entering the race, the race once again thrusts gender onto the national stage in a state with an unprecedented legacy.
We’re still nearly two years from Election Day, but there are already many factors to consider: who else might enter the race, who will line up behind which candidates, what Feinstein will ultimately do, and how voters take gender and compete along their political priorities or campaign agendas.
The role of gender in politics looms large over the Golden State. In late 2022, another Californian, Nancy Pelosi, resigned as the first female Speaker of the House. Kamala Harris, the acting vice president who also presides over the Senate, is originally from Oakland. California’s congressional delegation — the nation’s largest at 52 — boasts 19 women.
As the race for the next state senator takes shape, I wanted to start talking to other women who are watching the developments.
“In California, more than anywhere else, because there’s more history, this has been normalized, this level of representation for women and increased attention to racial and ethnic diversity,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women. and Politics at Rutgers University. “We will be talking about both these axes of identity and representation in this campaign.”
At 89, Dianne Feinstein is now the longest-serving woman in Congress and the oldest member of the body.
She became California’s first female senator in 1992, the “Year of the Woman” in Congress, with Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas serving as the catalyst for the record number of women elected to the House. of Representatives and the Senate. Also elected that year was Barbara Boxer from California. During their joint term, she and Feinstein were the only pair of female senators representing a state.
Boxer retired in 2017 and was replaced by Harris, who became only the second black senator. When Harris rose to the vice presidency, her departure from the Senate left no black women serving in the upper chamber. Black women then lobbied Governor Gavin Newsom to nominate a black woman, including Lee or Representative Karen Bass, to succeed him; he eventually decided to diversify the Senate by electing Alex Padilla as the state’s first Latino senator. In November, Bass was elected the first female mayor of Los Angeles.
Questions about Feinstein’s age and fitness to serve have dogged her in recent years — and those who may follow her.
On Tuesday, Porter announced her plans to run, and the next day, Lee’s office confirmed that she also intends to enter the race, though an official announcement has yet to happen. Representative Adam Schiff is also rumored to be interested in running, but has not officially declared. Rep. Ro Khanna, who has also expressed interest in the spot, said on Friday that he is including Lee in his decision. Khanna, who is Indian-American, tweeted that “it matters that we have an African-American woman in the Senate.”
Rep. Barbara Lee speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in January 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)
California has already been a proving ground for electing a black woman to the Senate with Harris’ 2016 victory, and Lee’s considerable political resume makes her a prime candidate. Lee is well-positioned to return a black woman to the chamber — whose absence is a “conspicuous omission,” said Glynda Carr, president of Higher Heights, which works to elect black women across the country.
“As we look at the next two Senate cycles, we immediately have an opportunity to rally around a woman of color,” Carr said. “Black women have been excited about Barbara Lee’s leadership over the years. She has a national profile, national relations, she has relations in the House and the Senate.”
Lee’s foray into politics began with Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for president in 1972. She volunteered for Chisholm’s campaign as a college student and young mother of two sons. In 2020, she co-chaired Harris’ presidential campaign. Re-elected in November to her 13th term after running virtually unopposed, Lee, 76, is the highest-ranking black woman in Democratic leadership and a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Porter was among a record number of women inducted into Congress in 2018, the modern era’s version of the “Year of the Woman.” A 49-year-old single mother of three, she has built a reputation for being no-nonsense, with a part-nerd, part-mother approach to her work in Congress, taking on institutions on behalf of working families in a sometimes simple way. . accompanied by a whiteboard. Her style is not unlike that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, her former college professor and namesake of her daughter Betsy. On Thursday, Warren endorsed Porter’s Senate bid.
Porter is “trying to use the popularity she’s developed during her time in Congress,” Dittmar said, adding that entering the race early could help offset her lack of political seniority compared to her potential rivals.
Rep. Katie Porter speaks to supporters at an Election Night Watch party on November 8, 2022 in Costa Mesa, California. (Apu Gomes/Getty Images)
“She’s been vocal, she’s been public about her criticism of those in corporate America, she’s developed quite a following,” Dittmar said. “She’s younger, she has young children, and she comes from a different perspective. She is a ‘surrogate representative’ for other mothers who are not necessarily in her circle but who ask her to speak on these issues, who will be vocal about the needs of young children and single mothers.
There are still many unknowns: Will Lee’s age become a factor? Does Pelosi or Harris put their thumb on the scale? In a nationalized race, do black women across the country rally around Lee? Can a white man win over a female candidate? Does California continue to lead the way in diversity? Will gender play a role in which outgroups line up behind a candidate—or which ones stay on the sidelines?
California is a large state where Republicans have not been competitive statewide recently, and candidates need massive amounts of money to get on TV and reach voters. It’s a very different challenge for a candidate than running for a seat in the House of Representatives — and I’ll be watching how the candidates handle it.
While this won’t be the only race we’re focused on over the next 662 days, it’s certainly one of the biggest and a window into our politics and democracy right now. Representation matters, and this race will be another opportunity to see how, for voters and for politics.