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Who Will Replace Feinstein?

]The election will not determine whether this is a progressive party, but what type of progressivism is most important to them.
[additional-authors]
February 14, 2023
Chip Somodevilla / Staff

If Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) is not elected to succeed Diane Feinstein next year, California will be without a Jewish Senator for the first time since 1992, when George Bush the elder was completing his time as president. In case you’re curious, that is not a record. The state of Minnesota was represented in the U.S. Senate by a relay of four different Jews who combined to serve for almost forty years from 1978 to 2017. But by the time Feinstein begins her retirement in January (which she has not yet publicly conceded but has earned the right to avoid for a bit longer) she will have almost single-handedly matched the combined service of Rudy Boschwitz, Paul Wellstone, Norm Coleman and Al Franken. 

There are other and better reasons that Schiff should become California’s junior Senator. But if he does achieve that goal, it won’t happen until Democrats here have resolved an exceedingly complicated question: in a deeply progressive state, what type of progressivism is most important? The answer could help define the party’s ideological path forward – both here and nationally – for years to come.

The first candidate to announce was Representative Katie Porter, (D-Irvine) who appears to have ruffled Feinstein’s political feathers by neither waiting for Feinstein to publicly declare her own intentions or talking to the longtime party icon in advance of her announcement. But Porter also entered the race with an immediate endorsement from Elizabeth Warren, her former professor and longtime ally, who represents the anti-corporate ideology that has shaped contemporary progressive economic thinking. 

Immediately after Porter’s announcement, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) made it known that she was considering the race as well. Best known for being the only House member to vote against the declaration of war against Afghanistan in 2001, Lee also embodies an older-school liberalism that has established her as a leader in the Black Congressional Caucus and on a range of racial and social justice issues as well.

 If Porter is Warren’s avatar in this contest, then Representative Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) is potentially Bernie Sanders’ surrogate. Khanna hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to enter the fray, as many of Sanders’ backers are urging him to run for the presidency next year instead.  But just as Sanders and Warren circled each other in 2020 to be the left’s standard-bearer in that year’s presidential primary, it’s not hard to see Khanna and Porter playing similar roles in this Senate campaign.

But Schiff might be the one who is best positioned. After coming to the House as a center-left Democrat, Schiff has been emphasizing his progressive credentials more aggressively in recent years. While he is not as far left as the rest of the field on the issues, Schiff’s credentials as Trump’s chief congressional tormentor are unmatched. His announcement video highlighted Trump just as noticeably as Porter’s featured Warren.

President Biden will not take sides in this primary, of course, but his own path to the nomination in 2020 could be instructive. Like Schiff, Biden was a white man facing a field of female and minority candidates. Like Schiff, Biden could not match his opponents’ progressive credentials and didn’t make much of an effort to do so. But like Schiff, Biden appealed to his party’s deep-seated hatred of Trump and rode that animus to the nomination and then the White House.

Will California Democrats define themselves primarily on economic policy with Porter, on cultural and societal issues with Lee, or as a defender of democracy with Schiff? 

The election will not determine whether this is a progressive party, but what type of progressivism is most important to them. Will California Democrats define themselves primarily on economic policy with Porter, on cultural and societal issues with Lee, or as a defender of democracy with Schiff? 

Trump will be on the ballot next year too, and his candidacy should benefit Schiff by reminding California Democrats why the leader of the impeachment fight is still helpful to have around. So right now, the smart money should be on Schiff and his quest to help Feinstein outlast the Minnesota Jewish quartet — and make sure that California will continue to have at least one Senator who celebrates the New Year when it was intended by the Bible.


Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www.lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.

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