California Senate Sinkhole

A race a Democrat will definitely win will be the most expensive in US history.

TNR’s Jason Linkins argues “Democrats Are Wasting Tens of Millions of Dollars in California’s Senate Race.” While most OTB commentators agreed with me that Gavin Newsom’s tapping of Laphonza Butler to replace the late Dianne Feinstein was shrewd politics, Linkins laments the move.

Newsom perhaps should have put his finger on the scale: The California primary for U.S. Senate has become a black hole of Democratic donor money, to the exclusion of what could be more consequential races.

Opportunities to become California’s senator have been in short supply in recent years, so it’s not a surprise that this race, in a state known for pricey political contests, was expected to become the most expensive Senate race in history. But now, as a result of Feinstein’s death, there will be not just the usual primary and general election next year but also special elections—meaning that donors normally constrained by maximum allowances will be permitted to double-dip for their favored candidates.

California Representative Adam Schiff already has raised what I would charitably call an unreasonable—perhaps even unspendable—amount of money. Axios reported in July that Schiff had almost $30 million in hand—“more than any other federal candidate, including for president.” After that figure ticked up slightly in the most recent fundraising quarter, Aaron Kleinman, the director of research at the States Project, made a canny observation: “In other words he has more cash on hand for a race Democrats are guaranteed to win than every single Democrat running for the Virginia House (which either party could control after November) has combined.”

The importance of the Virginia elections is clear: Democrats could stop the political career of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—who is term-limited in the Old Dominion and said to be weighing a presidential run based on how Virginia Republicans fare in November—in its tracks. Democrats also have a generally daunting Senate map in 2024, and a highly competitive gubernatorial contest in Kentucky on the wing.

This is not to say that the California primary isn’t worth Democrats’ attention. People have some passionate, principled, and well-informed opinions of who among that field—which Schiff has largely led over Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, according to the scant polling that’s been done—should be Feinstein’s successor. I’ve no doubt that I could develop my own ideas on the matter if I took as much time as those with a vested interest. That doesn’t really change the fact that Democrats are going to retain this seat and that the differences between these candidates will largely fade into the grayscale once a winner is seated.

While this makes every bit of sense from the perspective of someone in DC interested mostly in national politics, this just isn’t how any of this works.

First of all, at the campaign level, politics is incredibly personal. Schiff, Porter, and Lee likely won’t get another shot at a Senate seat that would catapult their careers to a new level. While Schiff and Porter, the two viable candidates, are virtually indistinguishable to me as a lapsed Republican, one imagines the millions of Californians have distinct preferences between them.

Second, only some of the money in question is fungible. I haven’t studied the breakdown of Schiff’s $30 million war chest, but I’m guessing most of that money was unavailable for contesting the Virginia House of Delegates. Californians interested in who their next Senator is are likely only vaguely interested Virginia politics. For big national donors, being owed a favor by a US Senator, let alone from California, is just a different animal than currying favor with 100 local politicians in another state.

Which is why I wish Newsom, who seems to harbor ambition about becoming a national leader of his party, had taken a stab at ending this primary himself. He could have given the nod to Schiff and called a halt to the implacable donor arms race. Barring that, he could have just fully honored his commitment to upping the representation of Black women in the Senate by tapping Lee, who was already running. That might not have sent a strong enough signal to turn off the money spigot, but it would have sent a worthy message to the backbone of the Democratic Party.

Realistically, Newsom is too calculated to have seriously considered doing all that. His pledge to stay out of the fray was probably less about keeping the spirit of fair competition alive than about not wanting to stick his neck out, only to have California voters chop it off. 

More likely, Newsom wants to be the next President of the United States and doesn’t want to alienate any faction of the California Democratic Party along the way. Which, again, strikes me as not only shrewd but reasonable.

But those who are, or aspire to be, Democratic standard-bearers ought to be thinking about the party’s needs across the country, and that means not encouraging a donor sinkhole in their own backyard. There are more critical elections and bigger prizes on which that boodle is better spent.

While party politics certainly has a team sports aspect to it, most pols have a narrower focus. While I’m sure Newsom would prefer Democrats win in Virginia and elsewhere, he’s far more interested in his own political future. And, even aside from personal ambition, he surely cares more about California politics and national-level US politics than he does in internal races in the other 49 states.

Democrats have, in recent years, demonstrated the tendency to dream a little too big and pile untold sums of campaign cash in the coffers of a litany of no-hopers. That’s not what’s going on here. But if Democrats are not careful, they could screw up from the opposite direction, denying critical resources to winnable races in the service of a seat they’re destined to get anyway. It’s time to stop emptying your wallets on this Senate primary and let these wannabe senators from California fend for themselves.

But this assumes that there’s a fixed amount of money available. Or that money is decisive in local races.

Early voting is already underway in the Virginia legislative races and, aside from a few yard signs, I’m seeing very little indication that there’s a big election that will be decided exactly a month from today. Redistricting has shaken up all of the seats and both the House and Senate could go either way—although one suspects they’ll both go the same way.

As to next year’s Presidential, Senate, House, and gubernatorial races, I suspect more than enough money will flow. That millions will have been spent on the unrealized ambitions of Porter and Lee will have next to zero impact on the other races.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mattbernius says:

    Newsom wants to be the next President of the United States and doesn’t want to alienate any faction of the California Democratic Party along the way.

    100% this. When you look at everything he has been doing, including making appearances on Fox New and his upcoming debate with Ron DeSantis, it’s clear that is the case.

    Heck, he wants to prep to run this cycle in case anything happens to Biden.

    That said, in terms of 2028, I personally think the Democrat to really watch is Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who had been doing a great job (by most accounts) in a swing state.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    James, the idea that there is no difference between Porter, Schiff and Lee because they are all Democrats just concedes governance to a sports teams mentality. Schiff is a pro-business Democrat who has a long history of crafting difficult, nuanced legislation for things like infrastructure initiatives and judicial reform. He is very interested in international relations and has gotten out in front on a number of foreign policy issues. Bottom line, he is indistinguishable from a Rockefeller Republican of the ‘70s.

    Porter is newer to Congress and much newer to elected office as she did not have a career in elected politics before that, and so it’s harder to determine her record and interests. However, she is definitely interested and aggressive in reigning in the power of big business, so the opposite of Schiff. And her background is very different, as she comes from a rural and farming background.

    Lee is probably more in line with your idea of a Democrat, having long championed Civil Rights issues and has been generally against US military interventions.

    As much as one Senator can make a difference the choice between these three might very well have a significant impact on Californians and even the nation as a whole. Frankly, to lump them into the same category simply because they are Democrats seems lazy.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: For sure. As noted in the OP, “While Schiff and Porter, the two viable candidates, are virtually indistinguishable to me as a lapsed Republican, one imagines the millions of Californians have distinct preferences between them.” It’s pretty clear that 77-year-old Lee isn’t going to win but she’s definitely a distinctive choice.

  4. DK says:


    However, she is definitely interested and aggressive in reigning in the power of big business, so the opposite of Schiff.

    Minor quibble, but opposite is a bit too strong a word here. Marjorie Taylor-Greene is the opposite of Schiff. But yes, Katie Porter is more focused on corporate malfeasance than Schiff.

    I am currently domiciled in West Hollywood, and Schiff is my representative. He is beloved here. West Hollywood currently has the nation’s highest minimum wage, not many Rockefeller Republicans here.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    @DK: I lived in upstate New York during the last era of the Rockefeller Republicans. Schiff strikes me as being pretty much in the same vein as some of that crew. At that time and place some Republicans would attend NAACP galas and were pro-abortion rights. Different world. The word “Republican” simply does not refer to the same thing any more. Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk is simply off the spectrum.

    That aside, the biggest difference is the total sublimation of power into the House and Senate leadership on the Republican side. It used to be normal for a Democratic administration to peel off Republican votes, and vice versa. If we return to those days (which, after all, has been the norm for the vast majority of our history), the differences between Schiff and Porter could be crucial. I exempt Lee from this because of her age. Even if the trend starts reversing soon, it will be years before new alignments shake out.

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    I recall my friends in grad school would remark about all the money being wasted on football, and think of how much better use it could be put to. I feel that’s about the same caliber of complaint as this one.

    Someone is spending money in a way that’s different from how I would do it!