It may be only January, but in just a few weeks, Californians will start voting by mail in the March 5 primary and deciding which two candidates will advance to the November election for the late Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat.
It will be another milestone on what has been a very bumpy road.
Despite her age, her obviously deteriorating health, and her declining popularity, Feinstein had insisted repeatedly that she would seek another six-year term to extend what had already been a three-decade-long Senate career.
Finally, Feinstein announced in February that she would not run again, and three Democratic members of Congress who had been quietly positioning themselves cranked up their campaigns.
The situation took an unexpected turn in September, after Feinstein’s death. Earlier, Gov. Gavin Newsom had declared he would appoint a Black woman to succeed her if there was a vacancy — clearly an effort to neutralize the backlash from his previous appointment of Alex Padilla to the Senate after Kamala Harris resigned to become vice president.
That promise seemed to favor Barbara Lee, a Black congressional member from Oakland who is one of the three senatorial hopefuls. But Newsom then amended his pledge to say that whomever he appointed would be just a caretaker so as not to tip the scales.
Newsom’s Signal for Dems to Rev up Their Campaigns
Newsom then zig-zagged again, disavowing the caretaker proviso and roiling the political waters by choosing Laphonza Butler to fill out the remainder of Feinstein’s term. At the time, it seemed to give Butler the inside track on claiming a full Senate term, but three weeks after being appointed, she said she would not run.
That was a signal for the campaigns by Lee and her rival members of Congress, Orange County’s Katie Porter and Adam Schiff of Burbank, to shift into high gear.
Schiff, who gained notoriety as one of Donald Trump’s most caustic congressional critics, has consistently led in both polls and fundraising and it had seemed likely that he would finish first in the primary with either Porter or Lee claiming the other spot on the November ballot under California’s top-two system.
Suddenly, however, it’s become uncertain that two Democrats will finish 1-2 in March. Republican Steve Garvey, a former star baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, declared his candidacy and recent polling gives him a fair chance of finishing second behind Schiff.
Although Garvey is a latecomer to the contest, a Politico/Morning Consult poll released in late December found that while Schiff was the clear frontrunner at 28% of likely voters, Garvey had claimed second place at 19%, followed closely by Porter and Lee.
Schiff Would Love to Face Garvey in a Run-off
Schiff is obviously pleased with the possibility of facing a Republican rival in November rather than a fellow Democrat. In deep blue California, Schiff would be the prohibitive favorite to win a Senate seat.
Conversely, it’s bad news for Porter and Lee. They must now scramble in the few remaining weeks before the March primary to gain the second ballot spot.
“A celebrity Republican is gaining traction in the polls, and he could advance to second place and keep us from qualifying for the general election,” Porter’s campaign said in a fundraising pitch last week.
Whether Garvey can win a place on the ballot, meanwhile, depends on him securing enough campaign money to raise his public profile and consolidating the GOP vote vis-à-vis several little-known Republicans also running.
Although the GOP can claim only a relatively small share of the electorate, it might be enough to give Garvey a second-place finish with Democratic voters divided three ways.
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. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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