Skip to content Skip to footer

With Feinstein on Her Way Out, Can a Progressive Win Her Senate Seat?

California’s 2024 Senate race is already heating up, with campaign bids from Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein leaves the Senate Chamber following a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

After three decades in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein has announced that she will not seek re-election in 2024, giving Californians a valuable opportunity to elect a progressive to the upper chamber. In this solid blue state, three prominent Democrats in the House — Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee — are eager to replace her.

Schiff has already won a fervent endorsement from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and much of the party’s corporate establishment is lining up behind him. A frequent guest on networks like CNN and MSNBC, the Los Angeles-area representative has ably served the military-industrial complex since entering Congress in 2001, including with his 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

Schiff’s national media presence has spiked upward as a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the January 6 Select Committee. He has cultivated a reputation as a defender of freedom against the evils of the Kremlin and MAGA Republicans. But Schiff is no friend of civil liberties — he has worked to prevent constitutional rights from taking precedence over the U.S. government’s mass surveillance programs.

Corporate power would be well represented in the Senate by Schiff. Amar Shergill, chair of the California Democratic Party’s large Progressive Caucus, told Truthout that Schiff, like Porter and Lee, has pledged not to take corporate PAC money in the upcoming campaign — a sign of progressive organizing strength in California” — but, he added, “Schiff most certainly is not progressive.”

Two months ago, Schiff voted against the bloated budget in the National Defense Authorization Act, saying that it increased military spending “beyond what was requested by the commander-in-chief.” But Shergill observed that “Schiff voted for military budget increases for 20 years until voting against in December 2022 in a fairly transparent pivot to the Senate campaign.”

Despite the left-leaning inclinations of most voters in the state, many activists fear that Representative Schiff is well-positioned to become Senator Schiff when 2025 begins. Shergill expressed hope that only one major progressive candidate will remain in the race, so that votes from the left won’t be split. The fragmenting effects of multiple progressive candidates in New York City’s mayoral election in 2021, resulting in victory for regressive candidate Eric Adams, amount to a cautionary tale.

“We will evaluate the campaigns over the next few months,” Shergill said, adding that “if the progressive candidates truly believe in the ethos of community over self, all but one will step aside before the primary to ensure that a progressive reaches the general election ballot.” Under California’s top-two system, given GOP weakness in the state, two Democrats could end up facing off in the November general election next year.

Unlike Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, who have represented solid Democratic districts for decades, Katie Porter has won hard-fought races against Republicans in Orange County and is now in her fifth year in Congress. She has impressed many progressives with her vigorously anti-corporate “whiteboard” presentations. Porter hits hard on economic injustice — but has not engaged much on foreign policy matters.

Lee provides a contrast with both of her major declared opponents — especially Schiff — on some aspects of militarism. In Congress since 1998, she has long enjoyed an exalted reputation among progressives, most notably for her courageous lone vote against the blank-check authorization for endless war that Congress approved shortly after 9/11. Her legislative battles on behalf of low-income people and her persistent advocacy for cutting Pentagon budgets have also been notable.

Yet, as years have gone by, Barbara Lee’s independence from the Democratic Party power structure has diminished. She would be a vast improvement over the low bar of Dianne Feinstein, much better than Schiff on domestic and especially foreign policy, and more likely than Porter to sometimes be a thorn in the ironside of the Pentagon. But, based on Lee’s political behavior in recent years, those who view her as a consistent foe of the warfare state are mistaken. Especially with a Democrat in the Oval Office, she has pulled her political punches rather than directly confront the militarism of the commander in chief.

Longtime antiwar activist Bert Knorr, who lives in Berkeley, has become outspoken as a constituent of Barbara Lee. While noting that she “has a reputation of being one of the strongest advocates for peace in Congress,” Knorr said that he has been “deeply disappointed by her repeated votes for a total of over $110 billion for the war in Ukraine. … In 2022 she voted in lockstep with every Democrat in Congress behind President Biden’s war policy without voicing questions or concerns about escalation and the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

Knorr added, “At a time when the world is at growing risk of nuclear war, Lee’s voice for peace is glaringly absent. She has refused to meet with peace activists or constituents to discuss her position or consider other views.”

During the Trump presidency, Lee voiced outrage that the leader of the U.S. government would meet at a summit with his Russian counterpart. In 2019, Lee endorsed then-Senator Kamala Harris for president and went on to serve as her California campaign co-chair.

The state party could now play an important role in what promises to be a free-for-all contest to replace Feinstein. Unfortunately, during the last several years, the California Democratic Party (CDP) has devolved into something close to a de facto dictatorship under its corporate-oriented chair, Rusty Hicks. Candidates will be vying for the CDP’s endorsement before the primary election next year — a factor that could aid Schiff, given the consolidated top-down corporate leverage over the state party’s operations.

As a member of the CDP’s central committee for 10 years, I’ve seen dynamics steadily worsen inside the political sausage factory. Establishment Democrats in California’s legislature have an outsized grip on much of the state party, while grassroots activists struggle to push back. As CDP chair, Hicks seems to be channeling the likes of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley (the notorious Democratic “boss”), doing all he can to eviscerate functional democracy inside the party while working to undermine the impacts of its progressive base.

One of the hallmarks of the California Democratic Party is that virtually everyone in its leadership claims to be “progressive.” It’s a claim that Adam Schiff is sure to make as he targets progressive voters. While Schiff’s longstanding support for corporate power and militarism could undermine his quest to become California’s next senator, his chances of winning will be bolstered if more than one strong progressive candidate stays in the race against him.

We have 2 days to raise $29,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.