In Senate race, factor in these factors

By Garry South

July 20, 2023

Capitol Weekly

There already has been much speculation and punditry about California’s U.S. Senate race next year. To date, three major Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring — U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff. Make no mistake, they are all significant candidates, each with considerable assets. Although others could join the field — a self-funding millionaire/billionaire anyone? — but this trio doesn’t leave much oxygen for other Democrats.

Further heightening interest, the race will be just the second open (no incumbent) Senate contest in 32 years. I don’t pretend to know how it will play out, and as with any election, much will depend on the effectiveness of the campaign each candidate wages, the amount of money they raise, and which crucial issues emerge.

However, I believe there are four other key factors that may affect the outcome.

The first is political geography, with two of the candidates from Southern California and one from the Bay Area. Given the historically much higher relative turnout in the Bay Area, Democrats from there have long had an advantage in statewide races.

The next U.S. Senator from California will be only the third member of the House of Representatives to ascend to the position in more than a half-century.

For nearly 29 straight years, the state had been represented by two senators from San Francisco — Dianne Feinstein in the soon-to-be-open seat, and Barbara Boxer, who was briefly succeeded by now-Vice President Kamala Harris, in the other. In both the 2018 and 2016 Senate runoffs, the Bay Area Democrat overwhelmed a Southern California party rival. It’s worth noting that Gavin Newsom is our second consecutive Democratic governor from San Francisco.

With not one, but two, major candidates from Southern California in 2024, will this geographical factor benefit Lee? It well could, considering that she needs only to place second in the June top-two primary to advance to the November runoff, which would set up another face-off between a Northern California Democrat and a Southern California Democrat.

Secondly, gender may also be critical. Again for 29 consecutive years, California was represented in the Senate by two women — the first state ever to have two female senators serving at the same time. With Alex Padilla having replaced Harris, the election of Schiff in 2024 would give the state two male senators for the first time since 1991. How would that sit with female voters, especially feminist Democrats? Women voters don’t necessarily always vote for female candidates, but if the run-off pits Schiff against Porter or Lee, this factor naturally would enter the decisions of some women Democratic — and no-party-preference women – voters.

Age may become another important factor. Will the past several years of speculation about the mental acuity of the 89-year-old Feinstein, coupled with recent physical illness that kept her away from the Senate for months, disincline voters to replace the oldest member of the Senate with Barbara Lee, who will be 78 by the November general election? It is unknown, of course, but if the runoff matches Lee against Schiff, who will be 64, or Porter, who will be only 50, it is likely the age contrast would come into play, at least subliminally with some voters, against the backdrop of Feinstein’s 91st birthday falling just weeks after the June primary.

The fourth factor that may influence the race is, well, race. There only have been two Black female U.S. Senators in history, the last being V.P. Harris; currently there are none. As the only African American in the race, will Lee benefit from sentiment among voters that Black women should be represented in the Senate, given their distinct life experience and perspective? Lee and her supporters already are making that argument and certainly will continue to do so. Will it prove decisive if she makes a runoff, opposing a White candidate? Any analysis of the Senate race should include this issue.

One thing of which I am all but certain: The next U.S. Senator from California will be only the third member of the House of Representatives to ascend to the position in more than a half-century. The other two were Boxer in 1992, and former Senator John Tunney in 1970.

However, being one of 52 House members from California does not confer much of a natural campaign advantage. Consider that each of our 40 state senators represents more people than a California member of Congress. Lee, Porter, and Schiff all must make their case to voters statewide starting essentially from scratch.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who has managed four campaigns for governor of California and two for lieutenant governor.