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U.S. Senate Race for Feinstein Seat Starts Games of Musical Chairs



Photo of Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Three members of California’s congressional delegation are running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Dianne Feinstein. (Carlos Barria/Pool via AP File)
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Remember the game of musical chairs?

A group of chairs is assembled and the players – one more than the number of chairs – march around them as music plays. When the music stops, the players scramble to sit in the chairs and the player who can’t find one is out of the game. One chair is removed and the game continues until there’s just one chair and one winner.

It’s an amusing game when played by children. It can be downright violent, essentially a brawl, when adults play, particularly after they’ve been drinking.

A multi-level political version of the game is emerging in California as at least three members of the state’s congressional delegation launch 2024 campaigns for Dianne Feinstein’s seat in the U.S. Senate, on the probably accurate assumption that she will retire after occupying it for three decades.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters



Two Democrats from Southern California, Orange County’s Katie Porter and Adam Schiff of Los Angeles, have announced and Oakland’s Barbara Lee hasn’t made it official yet but has told supporters she’s planning to run.

Other ambitious politicians could join the field once the 89-year-old Feinstein announces, as expected, that she’ll retire. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Health and Welfare Secretary Xavier Becerra are among the less likely possibilities, as is Gov. Gavin Newsom.

However, Kounalakis, Bonta and Becerra are also potential candidates for the governorship in 2024, when Newsom will be forced out by term limits – assuming he hasn’t already segued into some other office by then.

The dynamics of a three-way Democratic duel for the Senate are complex, involving ideology, gender, geography, congressional records, age and, of course, money. It takes millions of dollars, and perhaps tens of millions, for a credible senatorial campaign in California and at the moment it’s uncertain which of the three is the presumptive frontrunner.

At the very least, having three congressional members running for the Senate means the outcome will be a career-ender for at least two of them.

Meanwhile, the prospect of having three open congressional seats touches off scrambles of their own, particularly among state legislators. Democrats will retain Schiff’s and Lee’s districts, but Porter barely won re-election in her Orange County district last year, so Republicans have a rare opportunity to pad their thin congressional ranks.

Porter has endorsed Democratic state Sen. Dave Min to succeed her in Congress but two other Democrats have also announced: Dom Jones, a contestant on the Amazing Race reality TV show, and former Congressman Harley Rouda. Scott Baugh a former Republican legislator who very nearly defeated Porter last year, will take another shot at the seat in a district that is rated a toss-up due to its voter registration (D-35.6%, R-33.9%)  and past voting record.

Schiff’s announcement also generated a wavelet of would-be successors, including Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, termed-out state Sen. Anthony Portantino, former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles school board member Nick Melvoin and actor Ben Savage.

The third tier of political musical games involves those who would succeed the state legislators who will be running for Congress next year.

When state Sen. Dave Min declared for Congress, it was a relief for another Democratic senator, Josh Newman, because redistricting after the 2020 census had put both of them into one new Senate district. They may not be facing each other next year but Newman won’t have an uncontested re-election run because former Republican Assemblyman Steve Choi, who lost his seat in 2022 due redistricting changes, says he will seek the Senate seat.

The music is playing, so let the games begin.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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