What is going on with Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
(Image credit: Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein has represented her state in the U.S. Senate for more than three decades, carving a long and celebrated path through what was, at the start of her career, still very much a boy's club for the upper echelons of American politics.

But at age 89 she is the oldest lawmaker in a body increasingly grappling with its reputation as a geritocracy, and has recently faced allegations of mental decline that both critics and (anonymous) colleagues alike say is interfering with her capacity to legislate. Feinstein herself has vehemently pushed back on rumors of her waning cognitive faculties. To date she has done nothing to suggest she won't run for a seventh term in 2024, telling Bloomberg that she'll announce her decision in the spring, while saying she'll wait until next year to decide in a separate interview with Raw Story.

Recently, however, a number of high profile Democrats have opted not to wait, and preempted Feinstein by throwing their hats in the ring to replace her in the Senate — no matter what she eventually announces.

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Feinstein's political career

Over her 30-plus years in the Senate, Feinstein has become something of an institution unto herself, commanding the sort of power and authority many of her colleagues will never achieve during their time in office.

As the first woman senator from California, the first Jewish woman senator, first woman to sit on the Judiciary committee, and first woman to chair the Intelligence committee, Feinstein's congressional tenure has been peppered with victories, such as her work banning assault rifles in the '90s, as well as defeats, including support for the invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11 — a decision she later told CNN was among her biggest mistakes.

Who's vying for her seat?

The first person to announce plans to run for Feinstein's seat was California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a rising star in the progressive wings of the party who enjoys a national profile thanks to a no-nonsense interrogation style during congressional hearings. Framing herself as a "warrior" prepared to "stand up to special interests, fight the dangerous imbalance in our economy, and hold so-called leaders like Mitch McConnell accountable for rigging our democracy," Porter's early-January campaign announcement generated nearly a milion and a half dollars in donations within the first 24 hours, while prompting grumbling denunciations from some fellow California Democrats for launching her bid in the middle of an acute weather crisis.

Among those who allegedly took issue with Porter's timing was Rep. Adam Schiff, who waited two weeks before announcing his own campaign to replace Feinstein, claiming in an interview with Los Angeles Fox 11 that he was doing so with the Senator's blessing. Schiff's announcement came amid House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's ultimately successful push to block the California congressman from returning to the House Intelligence Committee on which he'd served for years.

A number of other California lawmakers are rumored to be mulling their own runs for Feinstein's seat. Among them are Rep. Barbara Lee, who reportedly notified colleagues of her plan during a closed-door meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus in early January, and later told reporters she would make an official announcement "when it's appropriate." Rep. Ro Khanna is also rumored to be mulling his own campaign for Feinstein's seat — encouraged, in part, by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — but has reportedly chosen to wait until after an announcement by Lee before he decides.

What has Feinstein said?

As befits Feinstein's "wait and see" approach to her own future plans, the senator has been similarly non-committal about her fellow Democrats who've wasted little time circling her seat. Shortly after Porter's announcement, Feinstein released a brief statement allowing that "everyone is of course welcome to throw their hat in the ring."

"I will make an announcement concerning my plans for 2024 at the appropriate time," she added.

In an interview on MSNBC, Schiff said that "[Feinstein has] told me — and we've spoken a couple of times, and I've stayed in close touch with her staff as well — that she's determined to finish her term."

"There's a lot she wants to accomplish," he continued. "She's still grieving over the loss of her husband and that she wants more time to make her own decision. But she said that, you know, that I should go forward, that I don't need to wait."

What would the race look like?

It would be expensive and messy. Porter "is among the most powerful fundraisers in the U.S. House of Representatives," observes the Los Angeles Times. And while the $7.7 million cash on hand she had at the launch of her campaign is certainly nothing to laugh at, it pales in comparison to the more than $20 million Schiff already has in his campaign coffers. To put this all in perspective, consider that the last time Feinstein ran for her seat in 2018, she raised and spent a total of just $16 million.

Beyond money, though, the race to replace Feinstein will be a goulash of demographic and geographic challenges for each of the candidates. Schiff earned his national reputation by going after former President Donald Trump during impeachment proceedings, but he has waffled on where he stands within the Democratic Party itself. He has described himself as a progressive despite his former membership in the centrist "blue dog" caucus of Democratic moderates and current role in the similarly moderate New Democratic Coalition. Schiff is also running for a seat previously held exclusively by women for nearly 30 years — a streak broken only in 2021 when Sen. Alex Padilla replaced now-Vice President Kamala Harris. Should Khanna and Lee both jump into the race, Schiff could find himself in a position to be the sole straight white male running at a time when, as Porter herself said in her campaign launch, "we need a more diverse representation and landscape."

California's geography might also play a role in the primary, given the state's historical trend of electing candidates from its north. As FiveThirtyEight notes: "In recent years, California's statewide political offices have been dominated by northern Democrats [...] 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."

Finally, it's important to remember that California runs a "jungle primary" system in which party affiliation is a non-factor. This means that not only will all the Democrats vying for Feinstein's seat face one another in the primary, but could very well go head-to-head as the top two contenders in the general election as well.

Are people waiting to pick sides?

Not exactly. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a brief, but tantalizing statement obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, throwing her support behind Feinstein "if [she] decides to seek re-election." Crucially, however, she continued that should Feinstein not run in 2024, "I will be supporting House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff."

Speaking with the Chronicle, prominent Bay Area Democratic figure Wade Randlett was effusive in his characterization of Pelosi's (conditional) backing for Schiff. "An endorsement in any open-seat Democratic primary from the greatest speaker of all time is golden," he said. "But to get it this early when there are at least three members of her caucus running is a Willie [sic] Wonka ticket"

Pelosi's endorsement of Schiff is the "strongest sign yet" that Feinstein won't seek re-election in 2024, the Chronicle said, reading between the lines. Pelosi has fiercely defended Feinstein from allegations of mental decline in the past, calling such claims "unconscionable" as recently as this past May. For her to uncharacteristically wade into a potential primary battle so early suggests the former speaker, still a major force within the party in terms of both influence and fundraising ability, may be privy to the senator's plans, or is at least comfortable not-so-subtly nudging her fellow San Franciscan to clear a path for someone new.

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