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The California Senate election could get messier if Dianne Feinstein resigns

Pressuring the 89-year-old senator to step down could throw the California senate race into chaos.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arrives at the Senate Chamber for a vote at the US Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023, in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made it clear on Wednesday — once again — that she has no plans to resign, despite growing calls for her to do so. Her decision is likely frustrating to those in her party who want to see her gone, concerned about her age and that her extended absence from the Capitol is slowing down Democrats’ consideration and confirmation of federal judges.

But her choice is also keeping an already messy California Senate primary from descending into even more chaos. One of the current challengers might get a boost if they’re appointed in her place, leaving the others with a much tougher chance of winning. Or all three could face a caretaker candidate who might even run for the seat as an incumbent.

The California senator, who is the longest-serving woman in the US Senate, has been back in the Bay Area recovering from complications due to a case of shingles since early March. She has long faced concerns about her age, health, and ability to do her job, with many Democratic insiders speculating about a perceived decline in her cognitive state last year, especially after the death of her husband. She frequently rebuffed that reporting and retirement talk, saying she had not made up her mind on running again, but ultimately decided not to.

Focus on Feinstein and her age meant some of those currently vying for her seat didn’t wait for an official retirement announcement to start their campaigns. Progressive Rep. Katie Porter, for example, launched her Senate primary campaign in early January, way before Feinstein had publicly made a decision about whether she would run for another term. Rep. Adam Schiff, who is backed by most of the California Democratic party establishment, announced his own bid a few weeks later — again, before Feinstein had made a decision.

Feinstein only announced that she would be retiring at the end of her current, fifth full term in mid-February, about a week before a third challenger, Rep. Barbara Lee formally entered the race (though her intention had been an open secret for months).

The number of candidates who have decided to enter the race, the endorsements they’ve received, the sides that other politicians have chosen to take in the contest, the few ideological differences between the challengers, and the timeline over which the campaigns were launched have all already made California a much more interesting and competitive field than it has been in years.

So far, none of those challengers has publicly spoken about the most recent calls for Feinstein to step down, which came amid reporting that Feinstein’s absence has slowed down the judiciary committee’s ability to confirm federal judges. This latest round of calls was kicked off in part by a vocal Lee campaign surrogate, Rep. Ro Khanna.

“While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties,” Khanna tweeted Wednesday evening. “Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people.” He was joined in that call by Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips.

These latest demands for her resignation pushed Feinstein and her team to make the most forceful declaration yet: “I remain committed to the job and will continue to work from home in San Francisco,” Feinstein said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “I understand that my absence could delay the important work of the Judiciary Committee, so I’ve asked Leader Schumer to ask the Senate to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily serve until I’m able to resume my committee work.”

A House spokesperson for Schiff was far less emphatic, telling Vox that the lawmaker “wishes the Senator a speedy recovery. He and the Senator both strongly believe the work of confirming judges is paramount, and he knows she’ll do everything to get back as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Lee campaign said that “the Congresswoman’s primary concern is for Sen. Feinstein’s health. She is wishing the Senator a full and speedy recovery.”

Porter’s campaign did not reply to Vox’s requests for comment on Feinstein.

This caution makes sense. Feinstein’s departure from the Senate now would create new challenges for the primary field, including turning a race for an open seat into a battle against a recently elevated incumbent.

Picking a replacement could have major implications for the Senate election

California is one of 38 states that gives their governors the authority to fill vacant Senate seats with an appointment, and this power was used recently: California Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped the state’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, in December 2020 to fill the seat that Kamala Harris would resign to serve as vice president. Padilla went on to run in both a special election (California laws limit how long a person can serve in an appointed senate seat before having to run) and a general election in 2022.

After Padilla’s appointment, Newsom pledged to appoint a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat were she to step down. The promise was part of a response to pressure he received after Harris’s selection as Joe Biden’s running mate, when various politicians, activists, and organizations called on him to appoint either the state’s first Latino senator or a Black woman to make up for Harris’s absence in the chamber (she was the only Black female senator at the time; there are now none).

Porter has recently urged Newsom to keep that promise, which could mean a serious disruption to the race she’s trying to win: her opponent Barbara Lee is one of the state’s most prominent Black female politicians. Selecting a candidate currently running for the post would be a huge advantage to them in the primary, but would also come across as Newsom “putting his thumb, and hand, and body on the scale,” Jessica Levinson, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School, told Vox.

There doesn’t seem to be any political upside to doing that, given the positive relationships he’s had with the candidates currently running and the blowback he would get from those candidates not chosen.

“I’d be surprised if he does that just because people will accuse him of handing [Lee] the election,” Levinson said.

Newsom could also hold a special election. But given the huge cost of organizing and executing a special election (the 2021 gubernatorial recall cost taxpayers $200 million), Newsom’s likeliest path is selecting a caretaker appointee, who isn’t currently running and who would serve out the rest of the term until the 2024 winner’s swearing-in at the start of 2025.

If Newsom were to keep his promise, that means potentially picking one of the state’s two highest-ranking Black female elected officials: Shirley Weber, who won a full term as secretary of state after replacing Padilla, or state treasurer Malia Cohen, who beat back a closer than expected Republican challenge last year. One other name that’s been floated is Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. However, she’s considered unlikely, as she just won her job during the intense 2022 midterms.

Update, April 14, 9:50 am ET: This story was originally published on April 13 and has been updated to include comment from the Lee campaign.