The race to replace US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has served as one of California’s two senators since 1992, is on. Earlier this week, Representative Katie Porter announced on Twitter that she is running for the seat. The one-and-a-half-minute video announcement, in which she spoke of “using whatever power I have to speak hard truths to the powers that be” and taking on “Wall Streets, and the big banks, Big Oil, and Big Pharma,” was, in the two days following its upload, viewed nearly 8 million times.
In all likelihood, now that Porter, one of the central figures in the Democratic Party’s House of Representative’s Progressive Caucus, has entered the fray, many other up-and-coming Democrats will also throw their hats into the ring. But Porter, who was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren within two days of her announcement, is peculiarly well-positioned to take the nomination. The Orange County Democrat, who won a seat in a traditionally Republican district in 2018 and has never looked back since, has wowed progressive voters with her take-no-prisoners criticism of corporate labor and business practices, her firm advocacy for expanding health care access, and her willingness to take on Big Pharma in an effort to secure lower drug prices. Last week, during the 15 rounds of voting that it took for Kevin McCarthy to become House speaker, images went viral of Porter sitting in the chamber and reading the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.
It’s an odd situation, though. The race to replace the sitting senator is taking shape despite the fact the sitting senator hasn’t announced her retirement.
Feinstein is 89 years old; she will be 91 come the 2024 election. In any reasonable world, having had a more-than-distinguished career, she would now gracefully bow out and make room for the next generation—or even the one after that. She should have done so in 2018, but insisted on staying in the race, scaring off most challengers. The one senior figure who did enter the contest was then–California Senate president pro tem Kevin de León; in the top-two-advance primary, Feinstein received about 44 percent of the vote, and de León came in second, with 12 percent. In the general election later that year, she got 54.2 percent to de León’s 45.8. Her rival went on to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council, and then self-destructed in 2022 when he was caught on tape, along with several colleagues, using racially inflammatory language to mock another council member and his adopted child.
Four years later, Feinstein is approaching 90, and, by all accounts, is a pale shadow of her former self. Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a long article quoting colleagues of Feinstein’s who questioned her mental fitness to remain in office. To date, however, despite ever-louder discussions about her impaired short-term memory and her difficulty performing her senatorial duties, Feinstein has not indicated any retirement plans. Like Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd before her—the former of whom served in the Senate until six months before his death, at the age of 100 in 2003, and the latter of whom died in office at the age of 92—at least one part of the aging senator’s psyche seems to believe that eternal membership in the Senate is some sort of birthright.
That said, Feinstein hasn’t exactly gone overboard raising funds for her reelection campaign—latest estimates are that she has a paltry $10,000 in her war chest—and the scuttlebutt is that at some point before the 2024 election she will, indeed, call it a day. That she hasn’t done so yet, however, speaks volumes to the sclerotic nature of US politics and to the flaws in a senatorial seniority system that channels an ungodly amount of power to individuals who are more than slightly overripe.
Porter’s campaign announcement is, in this context, a breath of fresh air. Having just won a bruising reelection campaign, in a new congressional district the lines of which were thought to marginally favor the Republicans, she has the staying power to take the fight to Feinstein, should the nonagenarian senator opt to try to stay in office. Porter has shown herself to be a formidable fundraiser—for her 2022 campaign, she garnered in excess of $23 million, and within 24 hours of her Senate-bid announcement she had raised over $1.3 million. What’s more, as Warren’s backing shows, the Orange County politician is likely to rapidly rake in A-list endorsements.
It’s been a long time coming, but Feinstein may have finally met her match.