The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats vying to replace Feinstein embrace party’s shift to the left

Perhaps more than any other 2024 race, the competition to succeed U.S. senator will test the potency of the anti-Trump fervor in the party against a desire for a leadership that reflects a diverse and liberal state

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) speaks to Democrats in Fresno, Calif., on Feb. 21. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
12 min

LOS ANGELES — Virtually everywhere that Rep. Adam B. Schiff goes on the campaign trail, he is swarmed by Donald Trump-loathing voters who credit him with channeling their fury at the former president as he presided over Trump’s first impeachment trial and served on the committee that probed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Get the orange man!” one woman shouted to Schiff (D-Calif.) as he strolled in running shoes along a Pasadena parade route not long after entering the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “Fight the Trumpster,” another woman shouted to him, as nearby admirers waved and pumped their fists as he passed. Hazel Bowman of Rancho Cucamonga leaned in to share her gratitude after watching him closely during the hearings: “You reach people,” she told Schiff. “Thank you for the fight.”

Schiff, a congressman with a deep war chest and powerful supporters in the party, has a national résumé well-suited to his deep blue state, where Trump is reviled, but his critics have accused him of moving left to advance his political aspirations. California is also a diverse state with a history of elevating left-leaning women and candidates of color to the upper echelons of power, and Schiff is running against two women, Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, who is Black.

“This generation cares about diversity,” said Mayra Campa, president of the Fresno County Young Democrats, when asked about the potency of Lee’s argument that the state’s next senator should be a Black woman at a time when that chamber has none. “We’re tired of seeing the same race, same gender representing us. We need to see ourselves on the dais. We need to see ourselves in positions of power.” (The group has not endorsed and has invited all three candidates to visit and seek their endorsement).

Perhaps more than any other 2024 race, the competition to succeed Feinstein will test the potency of the anti-Trump fervor in the Democratic Party against a desire for leadership that reflects a diverse and liberal state. Adding to the suspense in one of next year’s marquee races, there are likely to be two Democratic victors in the state’s top-two primary when the leading vote-getters will advance to the general election regardless of party. California hasn’t elected a White man to the Senate since the late 1980s.

Schiff, along with Porter and Lee, are heading to the California Democratic Convention in Los Angeles this weekend to court activists at a moment when the left wing of the party — which has never counted the once-moderate Schiff as one of its stalwarts — is determined to ensure that California’s next senator reflects the party’s shift to the left, which Feinstein never has during the three decades she has held her seat.

Feinstein’s office recently confirmed she had suffered more severe health complications from a shingles diagnosis than were previously disclosed. She has faced some pressure from several Democratic lawmakers — including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a prominent ally of Lee — to resign, but has not indicated any plans to step down.

‘They’re trying to rely on labels’

Allies of Porter and Lee are attempting to portray Schiff as a shape-shifter who has moved to the left for ambition rather than conviction, a claim he and his backers reject. Porter and Lee have built their own national followings as antagonists of Republican administrations.

But at a moment when Trump is dominating the GOP presidential nominating contest, Schiff has reintroduced himself to voters as a leader who stood up to the former president: “When a dangerous demagogue tried to undermine our democracy, I wasn’t about to let him,” he said in one campaign video. Like Joe Biden in 2020, Schiff argues that he is best-positioned to stand up to the threat of “MAGA extremism” and that Democrats must show Americans they can fix the economic struggles that have made them “receptive to a demagogue who comes along and promises that he alone can fix it.”

In the photo line at a meet-and-greet with activists in Fresno, 66-year-old activist Myra Coble told Schiff she would make 10,000 calls on his behalf, because he had proved his statesmanship while probing Trump’s conduct. Like many Democratic voters in some three dozen interviews across the state over the past few months, Coble said she was “torn” between Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, and Porter and Lee, but his efforts to hold Trump accountable had become the overriding factor in her vote.

Schiff “has earned this,” Coble said.

Bolstered by the influential endorsement of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco native whose power is still unmatched in the orbit of California politics, Schiff had $24.6 million in cash on hand in April — more than twice that of Porter, with Lee trailing behind with $1.2 million in cash. Schiff has also swept up more than 100 endorsements from current and former elected California officials.

“I don’t think voters are looking for some ideological litmus test,” he said in an interview when asked about the criticisms from his opponents. “I think my colleagues have had a difficult time differentiating us on policy, and so they’re trying to rely on labels. I don’t think people buy that. I think [voters] are going to evaluate the candidates on the basis of who do they think will improve the quality of life for them.”

‘Challenging power and the status quo’

Porter and Lee both argue that their life experiences more closely connect with those of the working people of California.

Lee, who at one time had to rely on public assistance as the single mother of two boys, has argued that she would bring a unique perspective as a Black woman that is missing in the U.S. Senate as she champions policies focused on the advancement of working people and people of color. She frequently notes that Kamala D. Harris, who served as the state’s junior senator before joining Biden’s team as his vice president, was the last Black woman to serve in the upper chamber.

“I think [voters] should look at who reflects their life experiences and who has a history of fighting for them,” Lee said in an interview, noting her long record fighting for abortion rights and “to lift people out of poverty.” She added, “A candidate must be authentic about what they’ve done.”

“Black women have had a history of challenging power and the status quo,” she said. “That’s why I say I’m bringing a seat to the table for everyone because that’s what Black women do.”

The Oakland congresswoman has built a diverse coalition of national leaders who are amplifying that argument, including Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. An outside group backing Lee is focused on activating Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, deploying door-knocking and phone-banking teams to focus on California’s six largest counties.

At Lee’s campaign launch in Oakland, a diverse and energized crowd — many of them young voters who revere Lee as the “O.G.” of progressive causes — filled the gymnasium as numerous female leaders stepped to the stage. “As a nation, to be in a place where not one single Black woman is in the United States Senate — that’s unacceptable!” Lori Wilson, an assemblywoman who is chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus said from the stage. “That’s right!” the crowd called in response.

Waiting to meet Lee on the rope line, 21-year-old Danny Bitiawaz of Pleasanton immediately cited the congresswoman’s vote against authorizing the use of military force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as the prime example of why he was backing her even though he wasn’t born at the time of the vote.

“It showed that she was able to stand against everyone who was pressuring her to vote with them,” he said, “because it was the right thing to do.”

‘Standing up to cheaters’

But Porter, a consumer advocate and bankruptcy professor who counts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) among her backers, has also inspired legions of liberal voters and built an enormous small-dollar fundraising base by creating viral moments wielding what her fans affectionately call the “whiteboard of justice.”

Armed with that whiteboard and black dry-erase marker, she has grilled Trump administration officials, pharmaceutical and bank executives during congressional hearings about their disconnect with the struggles of average Americans. In her exchange with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, she demanded that he justify his $31 million compensation package when his company was paying $16.50 an hour to an entry-level bank teller — showing him the math with her marker of how a single mother making that salary would end up in the red each month.

She has centered her Senate candidacy on the premise that she is the outsider candidate most adept at holding the powerful accountable in Washington — a message that is both a dig at Schiff’s insider backing and one with potential appeal to independents, who helped her win her purple Orange County district. She views many of the items on her agenda — such as the ban on congressional stock trading, consumer protections from predatory lending schemes, and her goal of tackling corporate power and consolidation in health care to bring down prescription drug prices — as efforts that appeal to a broad swath of the electorate.

“Standing up to cheaters, to powerful interests who are ripping people off is universally popular,” Porter said in an interview. “I have never met a voter, young, old, Republican, Democrat, White, Brown, Black, Latino who likes to be cheated.”

When asked about Lee’s argument that a Black woman should serve as the next senator, Porter, who is White, says she agrees that the Senate needs greater diversity. But she says voters will also be weighing the unique perspective she would bring to the chamber as one of the few single moms in Congress with school-aged children.

“So much of our policy in Washington is built around an idealized, imaginary family that does not map onto the experiences of regular people,” she said, pointing to her work before she ran for Congress fighting against payday lenders and predatory mortgage companies who, she noted, “prey disproportionately on communities of color.”

‘He speaks my language’

In challenging Schiff’s liberal credentials, his critics have pointed to stances that he took earlier in his career, including his backing of the Patriot Act and his vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq and the fiscally conservative policies he embraced as part of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, a group he has since left. His effort to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus — which counts Lee and Porter among its members — stirred controversy earlier this year and he withdrew from consideration.

Schiff’s past positions on criminal justice issues became an issue when he was a potential candidate to succeed Xavier Becerra as California’s attorney general. Three dozen criminal justice and social justice groups wrote an open letter in 2021 discouraging Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) from appointing him. The letter charged that the legislation that Schiff authored and backed as a state senator before entering Congress demonstrated that he was “deeply invested in creating our current system of incarceration,” which they said had “continued to devastate communities of color.”

Porter is also drawing a direct contrast with Schiff when she notes that she is the only major candidate in the race who has never taken contributions from corporate PACs or lobbyists — which she cites as “a proof point” for voters that she would “stand up to corporate power.”

Schiff, who won his congressional seat in 2000 by unseating a Republican, often highlights his push for top priorities of the left including Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. He is now also one of the co-sponsors for the reintroduced Judiciary Act of 2023, which would add four seats to the Supreme Court to mitigate the power of what he called “ultra conservative justices.”

The similar positioning of the candidates has complicated the decision of voters like Tamara Spicer, a business analyst from Upland, who said she feels conflicted between her desire to see a woman succeed Feinstein and her appreciation for how Schiff took on Trump.

“Every time we’re watching TV and watching what’s going on — whether it’s Trump or anything — he speaks my language,” Spicer said of Schiff as she explained the difficulty of choosing among three contenders she admires. “I feel like he is really an extension of us.”