Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, a seasoned progressive with more than three decades immersed in California politics, on Wednesday told congressional colleagues she plans to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2024.
Lee announced her intentions during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, receiving a standing ovation, but has not officially confirmed she is running or formed an official Senate committee to start raising money in a race expected to be both costly and intensely competitive.
Lee’s private disclosure comes just a day after Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) launched her campaign to replace Feinstein, 89, who has yet to disclose whether she intends to retire at the end of her term. As one of the most coveted posts in California politics, Feinstein’s Senate seat is widely expected to spur interest from some of the state’s most ambitious and prominent elected leaders.
Lee’s announcement was confirmed by a source close to the congresswoman who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on her political plans. The source cautioned that the congresswoman didn’t announce a Senate campaign — only her intention to run. The news was first reported by Politico.
First elected to Congress in 1998 after nearly a decade in the California Legislature, Lee is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She sought to join House Democratic leadership three times in the last decade without success.
Lee cast the lone “no” vote against the authorization of use of military force after the Sept. 11 attacks. Lee also has been a strong advocate for expanding access to abortion by repealing what is known as the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortion except when necessary to save a woman’s life or in cases of rape or incest.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, praised Lee as a member of Congress who “knows how to deliver and get things done” and who possesses a firm grasp of how Washington works, skills he said would serve her well in the Senate.
“Her reputation is that she’s the fighter for the little guy. She’s a voice for the voiceless, and she’s fearless,” Meeks said. “They look at her as a person who will do as she believes but yet still knows how to work across the lines to help her people.”
Meeks said the Congressional Black Caucus PAC would “absolutely” support her bid for the Senate.
Other potential Senate candidates from California’s congressional delegation include Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) and Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin).
Schiff backed off a potential leadership run in the House after former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced she was stepping down, paving the way for Hakeem Jeffries of New York to become the top Democrat. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) also promised to remove Schiff from the House Intelligence Committee, a panel he chaired before Republicans took over the chamber this month.
Khanna, who has been encouraged by allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to run for president, has said he’ll decide on a Senate run in the next few months.
Although Lee’s liberal track record would appeal to a segment of California voters, she does face some substantial head winds. At 76 years old, Lee may encounter resistance from voters if they are seeking generational change in Washington, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.
“If the argument for abandoning one of the most distinguished, formidable and loved California politicians in Dianne Feinstein is simply her age, then I think people will be looking for a much younger replacement,” Kousser said.
Lee also could struggle to win over moderate Californians, a pivotal vote in a state with the top-two primary system that can favor politicians who hew more toward the middle.
“Barbara Lee has a more progressive profile than” other Democrats expected to vie for the seat, said Kim Nalder, a political science professor at Sacramento State. “It’s an advantage for a subset of Californians but not necessarily for the voters you would need in a top-two system in which you’re likely to have two Democrats in the general election in that race.”
Additionally, Lee does not have the fundraising history of other Democrats in the race or who are weighing a run. In a state with some of the most expensive media markets in the country, the ability to raise tens of millions of dollars will be essential.
“It makes a huge difference. We’re not Wyoming, where you can practically knock on every door to win a Senate race,” Nalder said. “In California, you absolutely need a major media campaign and ground game. It’s insane how much money you need in California.”
Lee ended her most recent reelection campaign with less than $55,000 cash on hand, according to federal campaign filings. Khanna has more than $5 million in the bank, while Porter launched her Senate bid with nearly $8 million in her campaign account and Schiff has more than $20 million.
Porter, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in Congress, also raised $1.3 million online for the primary in the first 24 hours after her launch, according to her campaign.
Fresh off a competitive reelection to her Orange County district, Porter announced a Senate bid Tuesday morning, becoming the first major candidate to enter the field. But she drew criticism from potential rivals for her timing, which came as Californians are grappling with deadly winter storms that have killed at least 19 people.
Vice President Kamala Harris’ election in 2020 led to her Senate seat becoming vacant and the upper chamber without a single Black woman. Newsom appointed former California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Harris. Padilla, the first Latino to represent the state in the Senate, in November was elected to a full six-year Senate term.
Newsom has said he would appoint a Black woman to replace Feinstein if she were to vacate her seat early, and Lee was widely seen as a top contender for an appointment. But Feinstein has repeatedly said she intends to serve her full term, which expires in early 2025.
Feinstein, first elected in a 1992 special election, has not said whether she intends to seek reelection or retire. She told The Times last month that she would probably announce her intentions by this spring.
The Senate race promises to have a substantial impact on California’s 2024 congressional campaigns. Porter narrowly won her Orange County district, and Republicans had already identified it as one they hope to win next year. Republican Scott Baugh, who lost to Porter in November, said on social media that he plans to try again next year. Lee, Schiff and Khanna represent safe Democratic districts, but the vacancies could set off some fierce intraparty competition.
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