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The siren song of the California Senate race for out-of-state Democrats

Dropping money on this fight is a wasteful indulgence

As Katie Porter and others announce their bids for California’s Senate seat, Democratic donors should resist the urge to play along, Shapiro writes.
As Katie Porter and others announce their bids for California’s Senate seat, Democratic donors should resist the urge to play along, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If Joe Biden runs unopposed, there will probably be no political event that arouses the passions of liberal Democrats across the nation like the 2024 California Senate primary.

More than a year in advance, we have a cast of Senate candidates guaranteed to make any progressive Democrat’s heart swoon. At least four House members are likely to run, each with a national following.

Katie Porter, the maestro of the white board in congressional hearings, was the first to jump into the race to succeed the doddering 89-year-old Dianne Feinstein, who has not officially announced her retirement. 

Adam B. Schiff, the grand inquisitor of Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and a fierce prosecutor on the January 6 committee, announced for the Senate last week, just as Kevin McCarthy was booting him off the House Intelligence Committee. 

Barbara Lee, who is poised to run, was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorization for the war in Afghanistan. If elected, she would become the first Black woman in the Senate since Kamala Harris gave up the other California seat, now held by Alex Padilla.  

Ro Khanna, who is strongly considering the race, represents Silicon Valley in Congress while boasting sterling progressive bona fides as the national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. He is the son of immigrants from India. 

Choosing among these four candidates inevitably will launch passionate arguments on the Democratic left. It all comes down to which priorities dominate.

GENDER: Until Harris became vice president two years ago, California had had two female senators since 1993. If Schiff or Khanna prevail, California would have an all-male delegation until 2029, at the earliest.

IF NOT NOW, WHEN? For Lee, at age 76, the Senate race represents her last chance to move up. And Schiff, 62, for all his reputed ambition, has been waiting 20 years in the House to become a senator.

ANTI-REPUBLICAN FEROCITY: No one can match Schiff for his long record of opposing Trump. But Porter has earned her reputation for deftly skewering corporate executives with her incisive questions during congressional hearings.

GENERATIONAL: With both Khanna and Porter in their 40s, they can make the case that, after Feinstein, it is time for the torch to be passed to a new generation. 

FUTURE PRESIDENTIAL MATERIAL: All of them could be future contenders, except Lee — assuming they can win the seat. 

Over the 13 months until the 2024 California primary, new divisive issues will undoubtedly emerge. Obscure congressional votes will be unearthed as evidence of moral failings. Intemperate debate comments may be seized upon as a window into larger character flaws. 

That is the nature of party primaries, in which often the true differences among the candidates can be measured with a micrometer. With so much on the line, the trivial is inevitably equated with a tragic flaw.

Handicapping how the millions of California Democrats will vote in the Senate primary next year is a fool’s game best reserved for pundit panels on cable TV. Especially since, with California’s top-two primary system, it is quite plausible that two Democrats will end up facing off on the Senate ballot in November 2024, as was the case in the 2016 and 2018 general elections.

It all adds up to riveting political drama, certain to be a major topic on MSNBC and CNN, a Senate race that will purportedly help shape the future of the Democratic Party in a post-Biden era. 

And, unless you are a California voter, the outcome won’t matter a whit or even a half-wit. What? How dare you say it won’t matter?

This is one of the safest Democratic seats in the country. Whoever prevails will be on the left side of the Senate Democratic caucus. Although there is no way to know for sure, it is quite likely that all four would-be California senators, if elected, would vote the same way on every single major issue in 2025 and 2026. 

What does matter greatly is whether the next California Democratic senator will be in the majority or the minority. With a tight 51-to-49 majority, and no obvious pickups in sight, the Democrats will have to scrap and struggle to prevent Mitch McConnell from making a return appearance as the Grim Reaper and Senate majority leader. 

For out-of-state Democrats, sending campaign money to a California Senate candidate because of an email solicitation, a stirring appearance on MSNBC or a dramatic moment in a congressional hearing is a wasteful indulgence. From Hollywood to Silicon Valley, California is awash in enough wealthy Democrats to fund any credible statewide campaign. 

Democrats have a long history of squandering campaign money on Senate candidates who may touch the heartstrings but in political terms represent about as smart a move as investing with Sam Bankman-Fried. 

In 2020, Amy McGrath raised $94 million in a never-a-prayer challenge to McConnell. In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, now the chairman of the Democratic Party, corralled $131 million while losing to Lindsey Graham by a double-digit margin. Throw in another $74 million that went to Sara Gideon in Maine, who lost to Susan Collins by more than 8 percentage points. 

That’s $300 million in what turned out to be three hopeless Senate races. The point about political money — and this transcends ideology — is that it can be spent shrewdly or foolishly. And with control of the Senate on the line in 2024, there is a real political cost to the Democrats if its dedicated donors become impulse spenders. 

To repurpose the words of Nancy Reagan: If you’re a Democrat facing temptation to give to a California Senate candidate, just say no.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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