During Donald Trump’s presidency, few US House members grabbed more headlines than Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California. Schiff’s leading role in Trump’s first impeachment trial and work as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee made him a hero to many liberals and a villain to many conservatives. Now Schiff is looking to parlay his notoriety and accomplishments into a promotion: On Thursday, he announced a bid for California’s safe Democratic Senate seat, held since 1992 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
While Feinstein hasn’t announced her own plans, the prospect that the 89-year-old could retire all but confirmed that Schiff won’t be the only Democrat looking to win a solidly blue seat. Rep. Katie Porter announced her own bid earlier this month, and the field of contenders can only grow: Rep. Barbara Lee plans to run and Rep. Roe Khanna has also publicly expressed interest. We wouldn’t normally be interested in a federal race in a strongly blue state with an undeclared incumbent and a small field (for now), but California’s developing Senate race has a number of wrinkles that will make it quite interesting, from the race’s primary structure and the state’s geographic and ideological divide. How expensive will it be?
First, the California primaries are set as are the Senate races can Two Democrats come down. Dating back to 2012, all candidates in California, regardless of party, run on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. We still don’t know how many credible candidates will run from which party, but it could affect who advances to the November 2024 election. Historically, the most likely outcome is that one of these Democrats will meet a Republican in the general election, but that’s not a given: In the past decade, California’s statewide primaries have sent a pair of Democrats to the general election three times. Two of those were Senate races: in 2016, now-Vice-President Kamala Harris (then California’s attorney general) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez advanced (Harris won the general), and in 2018, Feinstein and then-state Sen. Kevin de Leon advanced (Feinstein won).
A number of strong Democratic candidates in 2024 would likely split the Democratic-leaning vote and that could fragment the GOP-leaning vote. Over the past decade, Democratic candidates have won an average of 57 percent of the top-two votes across all statewide primaries, compared to 36 percent for the GOP, so you can have a pair of Democratic candidates win a large majority of the Democratic primary vote and finish atop a ragged field of Republican contenders. As an indication of what’s possible, De Leon won a seat in the 2018 general election with just 12 percent of the vote, the lowest percentage for a second-place candidate in a statewide top-two primary.
Another issue that will undoubtedly be important is campaign fundraising. Not only is television ad buying dead in our digital age, but it’s expensive in California, which has the second-largest (Los Angeles), 10th-largest (Bay Area) and 20th-largest (Sacramento) television markets in the country, according to Nielsen. Not to mention, California is a huge state in terms of population and geography, so creating a statewide campaign won’t be cheap.
It’s an area where Schiff has an early edge: He had more than $20 million in his federal campaign account by the end of the 2022 election, thanks to his star power and an easy re-election campaign in his deep-blue seat that didn’t require him to spend much of his campaign on the war chest. will be
Schiff has more money but is not as generous
Financial, ideological and district data for declared and prospective Democratic candidates for California’s US Senate seat currently serving in the US House of Representatives
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That’s not to say that Schiff’s opponents—declared or potential—can’t raise beaucoup money. Porter brought in more than $25 million for his re-election campaign, second only to incumbent Speaker Kevin McCarthy among House candidates in the 2022 cycle. But unlike Schiff, Porter had to spend $28 million to narrowly win his competitive district last November. For his part, Khanna hasn’t raised that kind of money, but he represents much of Silicon Valley, America’s tech hub and home to a wealth of wealth. Lee may struggle to compete in terms of fundraising, but he is well-known in progressive circles and may be the only prominent black candidate in the race.
Naturally, ideological divisions may play a role in this race as well. Porter, Khanna and Lee are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Schiff is part of the more centrist New Democratic Coalition. This is largely reflected in the voting record: Schiff falls largely in the middle of the House Democratic caucus, while Khanna and Lee both sit distinctly on the left. Porter, though, is hard to pin down. He drew a lot of eyeballs (and donations) for questioning corporate honchos in congressional hearings, and he’s campaigning as a progressive. But that profile overshadows a pretty mediocre voting record, which perhaps speaks to the reality of representing a highly competitive district — a challenge that none of the other three members of the House have faced. In theory, the three progressives could split the more left-leaning vote in the primary, improving Schiff’s chances of advancing to the general election. What’s more, California Democrats may be dominant, but they aren’t necessarily that Progressive, which means Schiff can initially play to a larger segment of the electorate.
Another wrinkle is California’s north-south divide in Democratic circles, with populations in the north centered on the Bay Area and Los Angeles in the south. In recent years, statewide political offices in California have been dominated by northern Democrats, including Feinstein, longtime former Sen. Barbara Boxer, Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Sen. Harris. In this north-south divide, Schiff and Porter both represent parts of greater Los Angeles while Lee and Khanna represent the Bay Area, so whether or not both northerners run is important to how the primary votes shake out. After all, the tendency for candidates to win votes from their regionally aligned “friends and neighbors” remains a factor in primaries.
But the Northern California Democrats’ edge could shrink, which could swing back to either Schiff or Porter’s advantage. After Harris became vice president, Newsom appointed Sen. Alex Padilla — a former California secretary of state and Los Angeles native — who won a full term in 2022. And if you look at the trajectory of primary voting in California, Southern California has recently voted a large portion of the Democratic vote in the top-two primaries. This has yet to pay huge dividends for statewide candidates from the South, but it could impact the 2024 primary.
At this point, there are more questions than answers about the state of play in California’s much-anticipated 2024 Senate race. But in the months ahead, we’ll be taking a closer look at key aspects of the competition.