No waiting games

No waiting games

David Mark

January 20, 04:30 AM January 20, 04:31 AM

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LOS ANGELES — Rep. Katie Porter was the first Democratic House member to declare her 2024 candidacy for the Senate from California. She likely won’t be the last.

Porter, representing the coastal Orange County and Irvine 47th Congressional District, announced Jan. 10 she will run for the Senate seat held for 30 years by a fellow Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The former University of California, Irvine law school professor, an alum of Yale and Harvard Law School, is an acolyte on the populist Left of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Porter was first elected to the House in 2018 as part of the Democratic wave that won the party’s first majority in eight years, beating an incumbent Republican in a different Orange County district.


Rep. Adam Schiff, a graduate of Stanford and Harvard Law School, is also eyeing the race. Schiff, representing the Los Angeles, Burbank, and Glendale 30th District, hasn’t yet joined the Senate fray but has been gobbling up campaign contributions in advance of a potential statewide run.

First elected to the House in 2000 when he beat an incumbent Republican lawmaker, Schiff was viewed as a relatively centrist and unobtrusive Democrat for the first 16 years of his House career. But among Republicans, he became a Democratic bete noire during former President Donald Trump’s administration. That started when, as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he became a leading Trump critic about the role of Russia meddling, or lack thereof, in the former president’s 2016 upset defeat of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Once Democrats won the House majority in 2018 and Schiff became House Intelligence Committee chairman, he ratcheted up the scrutiny of Trump, culminating with the first of two impeachments of the then-president, in the fall of 2019, over Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into providing damaging narratives about then-presidential hopeful Joe Biden.

The episodes made Schiff a Republican bogeyman, to the point that the new Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy (CA), plans to kick Schiff off the House Intelligence Committee entirely.

House Republicans also have lately knocked Schiff for leaning on Twitter to censor and de-amplify content on the platform, according to recently released documents. The latest version of the “Twitter Files,” a series of internal documents and communications provided to journalists by owner Elon Musk, details the communications between Schiff’s office and Twitter.

Porter has spent the last four years in Congress gaining widespread attention for her acerbic questioning of corporate executives using a whiteboard. She was able to defeat a Republican challenger this past cycle in her closely contested Orange County race.

Porter’s formidable fundraising ability is likely to serve her well in a Senate bid; she reported collecting $1.3 million in the 24 hours since she announced. Schiff, however, held a giant $20.6 million to $7.7 million cash-on-hand edge over Porter in late November.

Porter, like Schiff, is a familiar Republican target, if a somewhat less vehement one. It started with Porter’s 2019 Halloween outfit when the outspoken freshmen lawmaker showed up to a House committee hearing wearing a Batgirl costume. And just in early January, Porter drew GOP jeers for trolling the disorganization and dissent between House Republicans, as it took them 15 ballots to elect McCarthy as speaker. Porter at one point sat on a House floor chair reading the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. The episode set off firestorms of conservative Twitter critical of Porter.

Porter has faced other controversies that will likely emerge on the Senate campaign trail. At the end of 2022, she drew scrutiny after a former staffer released a text exchange in which the congresswoman blamed her for giving her COVID-19. Three months earlier, Porter criticized the Irvine Police Department after they arrested the man she lives with for allegedly assaulting a protester at her town hall event last year. A Porter spokesman said at the time that the congresswoman “was upset that a planned family-friendly town hall was hijacked by extremists, who made constituents feel unsafe, including using hateful slurs in front of children.”

Yet the heavy Republican criticism of Schiff and Porter is matched by enthusiasm from the Democratic political base. It’s allowed both to become titanic fundraisers, which is crucial for a California Senate race that will cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, to promote their candidacies in expensive media markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

“We have entered the era of ‘celebritization’ of certain national political figures,” said Mike Gatto, a former Democratic California assemblyman whose legislative district overlapped in parts with the one Schiff represents in the House.

Porter and Schiff have the advantage of being familiar figures among those who follow politics closely.

“They are absolute celebrities to the Democratic base. People have the ability to raise money in $5 and $10 increments,” which can quickly add up, Gatto told the Washington Examiner.

At this early stage, Schiff would appear to have an edge, Lakshya Jain, a founder of the political data analysis site Split Ticket, told the Washington Examiner.

“Adam Schiff is probably the favorite. He’s got the most name recognition, the most money,” said Jain, a computer scientist/machine learning engineer in the Bay Area. “I’m more bearish on Katie Porter’s chances. Schiff has been an incumbent for much longer, and he has a bigger national profile. Schiff also would likely dominate the Southern California vote.”

Porter has a better chance if she faces Schiff in November 2024, which is possible under California’s “top two” election system.

“She would be the candidate that a lot of Republicans would vote for because they don’t like Adam Schiff,” Jain added.

Not waiting on Feinstein

Feinstein, 89, hasn’t announced her retirement from the Senate seat she first won in 1992. But she might as well have. Almost everyone expects the senator to step aside amid serious questions about her cognitive health.

Senate Democrats some years ago forced Feinstein to step down from the party’s top post on the Judiciary Committee after wobbly performances in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justices Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Amy Coney Barrett two years later, along with those for lower-court federal judges.

And earlier this year, Feinstein demurred from trying to become president pro tempore of the Senate after Democratic leaders in the upper chamber made clear that wasn’t in the cards. The post usually goes to the senior-most member of the majority party. It’s third in the line of presidential succession behind Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker McCarthy. The role went instead to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), 72, who has slightly less Senate seniority than Feinstein.

Feinstein, elected to the Senate in 1992 after being the first female mayor of San Francisco, has remained tight-lipped on her plans and has said she would not leave early. A spokesperson for Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times last month that she “has no plans to step down and will announce her plans for 2024 at the appropriate time.”

A growing field?

The 2024 Senate race in California is a near-certain Democratic hold in an election cycle in which Republicans are trying to defeat Democratic incumbents in Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia while going on the offense elsewhere in a bid to end the current Democratic majority in the chamber.

The only plausible chance for a Republican win would be for California’s top two election rules to work against Democrats due to an overcrowded field. Candidates of all parties will square off in the March 2024 Senate primary, with the top two finishers meeting in November. It’s theoretically possible that too many Democrats could divide the electorate and allow a pair of Republicans to slip through. But that’s unlikely in a state where the California Republican Party is on its heels, with GOP candidates having lost every statewide race from 2010 on. And, so far, no Republicans are in the Senate race, though it’s still early.

Still, the prospect of a crowded Democratic Senate field is real. Another prominent House Democratic member, Rep. Barbara Lee, of the Oakland and Berkeley 12th District, on Jan. 11 told members of the Congressional Black Caucus of her intentions to run for Feinstein’s seat. Lee is not formally launching yet, she said, noting her focus on the severe storms battering California.

Lee has spent decades as a progressive firebrand in Washington and was the lone member of Congress to vote against authorizing war after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While that move drew scorn and derision at the time, along with death threats, it’s since been embraced by the fringes of both parties.

Lee’s Bay Area roots could be an asset against Southern Californians like Porter and Schiff and help counteract their fundraising might.

“Barbara Lee really has a good lane in that she’s a Northern California candidate who would get the most votes in the Bay Area,” said Jain of Split Ticket. “Katie Porter probably has lower name ID in the Bay Area. Plus, Barbara Lee is the only black candidate getting into the race. She would get a lot of the vote in Oakland and other communities.”

Lee, Porter, and Schiff may not even be the last Democratic House members to join the Senate scrum. Rep. Ro Khanna is reportedly making calls to California Democrats and weighing jumping in, though his efforts have been quieter than his trio of House colleagues.

Khanna represents the northwestern San Jose area 17th District. The Yale Law School graduate is a political paradox of sorts, representing the world’s tech business hub while also being a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Khanna ventures on to G3 Box News more than most elected Democrats and has sought to broaden the party’s appeal beyond a highly educated, professional-class base to non-college-educated voters and blue-collar workers who helped elect Trump president in 2016.

Khanna would be a tougher sell for a Senate race in California since, in his six years in office, he’s focused on building more of a national profile, Jain said. That includes touting plans to bring back manufacturing to the United States — a worthy public policy goal, to be sure, but not a fixation of Golden State voters.

“Nobody cares about that type of thing as much as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania,” Jain said.

More candidates to come?

Porter launched her Senate bid by releasing a November poll from David Binder Research arguing that she’s best positioned to claim the seat against a slew of Democratic rivals. The survey of 600 voters conducted Nov. 19-21 with a margin of error of plus or minus 4% found Porter with 30% support. Schiff was just behind with 29%, per the poll, followed by Lee at 9%, a Republican candidate at 9%, and Khanna at 6%.

However, the poll also found Porter defeating Schiff 37%-26% in a November showdown. Another 19% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote.

Khanna, for his part, responded to Porter’s launch by saying he was focused on the serious flooding hitting California. (An unnamed Schiff ally also brought up the storms to bash the timing of Porter’s launch, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s f***ing crazy that she would announce in the middle of a natural disaster. There are 15 people dead. I think there potentially could be more.”)

Khanna said he planned to make up his mind by the end of March and would take Lee’s decision into account. He told the Washington Post, “I do have a respect for her and the cause of seeing representation for an African American woman, and that is something I would factor in, candidly.”

And the Democratic field may not end there.

An outstanding question about the emerging California Senate field, noted Gatto, is: “Does one of the down-ballot constitutional offices decide to run?”

Gatto added, “This will be a once and a lifetime shot for many people.”

More names will likely surface soon, especially if Feinstein steps aside. News outlets have mentioned other prominent California Democratic figures, including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

To political professionals, Kounalakis’s name stands out. She was former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Hungary from 2010 to 2013 and is a longtime Democratic contributor. The lieutenant governor is the daughter of Angelo Tsakopoulos, a wealthy Sacramento-area developer who, in her 2018 race for lieutenant governor, gave $5 million to an independent expenditure promoting his daughter’s campaign. That was on top of more than $3 million she donated to her own campaign.

Whether Kounalakis runs for Senate or not, it’s a reminder that there are plenty of other Golden State residents who could self-fund campaigns, whether celebrities, Silicon Valley executives, or a range of other wealthy Californians.

“The list of potential candidates could be a lot longer,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic consultant in Los Angeles and publisher of the California Target Book. “There are plenty of rich people in California who could jump in.”

For the nonwealthy, the biggest challenge, Sragow said, is raising enough money to get their names out to the huge California public.

“People who don’t live in California fail to understand there are nearly 40 million people here. If you’re a congressman in the LA media market, you don’t have the market to yourself,” Sragow said.

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