Don’t Count Barbara Lee Out of the California Senate Race

Don’t Count Barbara Lee Out of the California Senate Race

Don’t Count Barbara Lee Out of the California Senate Race

The conventional wisdom says that Lee is the long-shot candidate in the blockbuster race. Here’s why that’s wrong.

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It’s hard to tell time by revolutionary clocks.” That observation by historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in an essay about the turbulent times of the late 1960s is equally apt today when trying to properly understand the dynamics of important political contests such as the 2024 race to replace California’s senior US senator, Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein will either retire at the end of next year or, given her recent health issues, even earlier than that. One way or another, though, her time in office is coming to an end, and a high-profile contest is already underway to succeed her. Despite the considerable national attention being paid to the race, most pundits, reporters, and donors are missing the mark in assessing the viability of the candidates and how the campaign will likely play out. In particular, one of the candidates—Barbara Lee, the progressive hero who represents Oakland in the House of Representatives—is being written off much, much too early.

(It’s important to note that the electoral calculus for this race could quickly become entirely scrambled if Feinstein’s health forces her to step down and Governor Gavin Newsom follows through on his 2021 promise to appoint a Black woman to her seat. Should Lee be appointed, she would then be running as an incumbent, with all the advantages that flow from that. But since we simply don’t know whether that is going to happen, this piece will examine the situation as it currently stands with Feinstein still in office.)

Lee was the last of the three major candidates to throw her hat into the ring. The first two were Southern California Representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Both Porter and Schiff are fundraising powerhouses who trail only Nancy Pelosi among Democratic members of the House in dollars raised in 2022. Porter’s aggressive and provocative questioning during congressional hearings has made her a viral favorite of progressive small-dollar donors across the country who helped her amass $26 million for her reelection bid last year.

Schiff, for his part, has assiduously cultivated major donors over the years with his calm, erudite, methodical manner that resonates deeply with major donors who hope for a return to an “Age of Enlightenment” where political discourse is civil and fact-based ideas dominate. Schiff brought in $25 million in the 2022 cycle.

Conventional wisdom has quickly congealed into the belief that Schiff and Porter are the front-runners in what will be an extremely expensive contest.

Should the race proceed as currently configured, it is certainly true that this election will break the bank, possibly in record-setting ways. But it is by no means a given that Lee will lag behind, and that is because of two dominant realities that most analysts are missing: California’s demographic revolution and the obliteration of campaign finance rules and laws that formerly shaped electoral contests. (For the record, although I live in California, I have not endorsed or contributed to any of the candidates.)

The first and most important electoral reality in the Golden State is that the composition of the population has changed dramatically in the three decades since Feinstein went to Washington. In 1990, nearly 60 percent of the state’s residents were white. Today, that number has been cut nearly in half, with whites making up just 35 percent of California’s population.

And while the country’s hypocritical immigration laws bar some residents from becoming full-fledged citizens with the attendant right to vote, people of color still account for 55 percent of all eligible voters in the state. According to the exit polls in 2020, the majority of Californians casting ballots were people of color.

These racial realities matter because, in a country with centuries of racial oppression and a continuing gargantuan racial wealth gap, people of color, as a group, have more progressive politics than whites. In the 2020 presidential election, Biden barely beat Trump among California’s white voters (51 percent to 47 percent), but fully 73 percent of voters of color voted Democratic. Myriad public polls show that on issues such as economic justice, people of color prefer far-reaching public policy change. A 2021 Pew Research poll found, for example, that support for student loan debt relief had a net approval rating of more than 80 percent among African Americans and Latinos, as compared to 53 percent among whites (Asians support relief by a margin of 69 percent).

Among the three candidates, Lee’s public service track record most closely aligns with the values and priorities of the majority of California’s voters. Coming of political age in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and serving as chief of staff to Oakland’s champion of peace Ron Dellums, Lee has made her mark and her name fighting for peace, justice, and equality with an unapologetic racial lens. Most notably, her courage in being the lone vote in Congress against the Afghanistan War inspired millions of people of all races to proudly proclaim, “Barbara Lee speaks for me!”

Schiff, in a sign that he now understands his electoral vulnerability, recently sought to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus to beef up his progressive bona fides (he eventually dropped his bid after media criticism). Porter, for her part, has made her name taking on Wall Street and corporate greed, while being less vocal about criminal justice reform, immigration, and systemic racism.

While the majority of Californians are likely more politically aligned with Lee, it does in fact take a lot of money to communicate with 26 million potential voters scattered across several of the most expensive media markets in the country and let them know that you are on their side. Porter’s and Schiff’s fundraising prowess will definitely help them, but the campaign finance landscape has changed in two profound ways that could accrue to Lee’s benefit.

Over the past 20 years, the campaign finance system that previously shaped federal elections has withered and is on the verge of dying. These changes have occurred in two stages over the two decades. The first stage was the democratization of campaign finance flowing from the power of the Internet to connect and coordinate small-dollar contributions across the country into a firehose of campaign cash. In Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign, he raised $119 million, and he received widespread media criticism for his courting of donors. By 2008, Barack Obama opted out of the federal campaign finance matching funds system because he knew he could raise astounding sums on his own, and he was right, bringing in $750 million (more than $287 million of that in the primary).

As record-breaking as Obama’s performance was, Bernie Sanders nearly matched his haul, bringing in $237 million in his 2016 campaign. Notably, just last week Representative Ro Khanna, who served as cochair of the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, endorsed Lee and agreed to serve as her cochair as well. If the Sanders donor army gravitates to Lee, they could quickly level the fundraising playing field.

The other development in campaign finance is the rise and normalization of super PACs and independent expenditure campaigns. I helped create the country’s first super PAC in 2007, and newspapers ran front-page articles attacking Obama for not more forcefully denouncing our political action committee, which had received contributions of $90,000. Last year, right-wing billionaires such as Peter Thiel spent more money backing J.D. Vance’s Ohio bid for the US Senate than Vance himself spent ($19 million to $15 million). Nary a peep of protest was uttered (Vance was actually outspent three to one by his opponent Tim Ryan, but Thiel and company more than made up the difference).

The floodgates have now opened in terms of major donors’ participating as major players in elections, and in Lee’s case, a constellation of major donors is making plans to back her bid. If that is the case, then the millions of voters who would gravitate to Lee’s record and leadership will in fact learn about her candidacy in far greater numbers than they would if she were left to her own fundraising devices.

The demographic and campaign finance revolutions have changed the calculus and formulas for how elections unfold. While it is hard to tell time by revolutionary clocks, those who appreciate the profound changes taking place in politics will see that Barbara Lee’s bid to become senator may in fact be right on time.

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