Dianne Feinstein's Exit Exposes California Progressives' Greatest Challenge

The long-anticipated retirement of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has cleared the way for a new wave of Democratic candidates to potentially take the seat she has held for three decades. But her decision not to run for reelection in 2024 presents a challenge for progressives.

On Tuesday, the 89-year-old senator announced she would finish out her term but wouldn't run again next year, in what is expected to be a competitive race.

Although California is solidly blue, all eyes will be on the Democratic primary in which some high-profile officials, like Representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, have already announced their bids. Feinstein's exit is likely to welcome more Democratic challengers, but many of the names that have been floated as top contenders are also progressive voices.

Porter has been cast as the progressive challenger to Schiff's more moderate campaign. But Representative Barbara Lee is expected to join the race before the end of the month and others have urged Representative Ro Khanna to do the same—both bids that could shake up the race and add more progressives to the ballot.

Dianne Feinstein's Exit California NEW
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) leaves the Senate Chambers during a series of votes in the U.S. Capitol Building on May 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty

The catch is that if multiple progressives enter the race, it is likely they'll split the vote, which would benefit Schiff, Democratic strategist and Group Gordon Principal Michael Gordon told Newsweek.

Political consultant Jay Townsend agreed, saying that the primary will largely depend on the number of credible and well-funded progressives in the race.

"Competition for money and endorsements will be fierce," Townsend told Newsweek. "The greater the number in the progressive lane, the easier the path for a moderate Democrat."

In a way, Gordon said California's Senate race could be compared to the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Having 17 candidates in the GOP primary, with 16 being anti-Trump and one being Donald Trump, Republican voters were split. Ultimately, that allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination.

Similarly, if Democratic voters are split across several progressive Senate candidates, Schiff could win with a plurality.

"We'll see if there's discipline on the progressive side of the ledger to limit the candidates, but individual ambition and party discipline don't go well together," Gordon said.

California progressives will also be eager to jump on the regional and racial divides in the state, Democratic pollster Carly Cooperman told Newsweek.

She said while the state's politics have historically been dominated by the wealthier and white voters in the Bay Area, Latinos are now the largest demographic in California. So, some believe that the state's next senator should represent the more diverse Los Angeles area that Porter and Schiff, who are both white, represent. Lee is Black, and could be the third Black woman to serve in the Senate's 250-year history. There are currently no Black women in the chamber.

"While this race will not determine the control of the Senate in 2024, the seat is particularly important because it has an outsized influence due to the size of California's population and economy generally," Cooperman said.

Even if the seat ends up going to a moderate candidate like Schiff, Cooperman said that the seat will be much more left-leaning than it was during Feinstein's tenure.

"All current and prospective candidates are farther to the left than Feinstein, reflecting the general shift of the Democratic Party over the years," she said. And the race is likely to be "closely watched as a proxy for the party generally as the Democratic Party tries to redefine itself after the Trump presidency."