When Dianne Feinstein arrived in Washington in 1992, her home state of California was solidly purple and Republican Pete Wilson occupied the governor’s office.
More than 30 years later, as the oldest member of Congress and California’s longest-serving senator prepares to retire, her state is arguably the most reliably blue in the US.
Feinstein’s protracted career as a senator also charts the rise of California as a political power player on Capitol Hill, whose 55 electoral votes – the largest block by far, with Texas and Florida as distant seconds – have helped guarantee a Democrat in the White House for six out of the last eight terms.
Yet despite Feinstein’s early history as a transformative feminist from San Francisco, her perch in the top rungs of Senate leadership has outlasted its welcome among her increasingly liberal base. Grumblings about her willingness to work with Republicans, as well as concerns about her physical and mental competence, has left many clamouring for a changing of the guard, meaning the race to replace her in November 2024 is destined to become among the most hotly contested and consequential races in Democratic party politics.
So far, three candidates have surfaced. Two of them, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, are veteran liberal legislators, having been in office since 2001 and 1998, respectively, while Katie Porter, a progressive congresswoman from traditionally conservative Orange county, is a rising star who first took office in 2019. Apparently not one for following party protocols, Porter stunned some observers by announcing her candidacy a full month before Feinstein made her retirement official early this February.
Of the three, Schiff, who helped steer two successive impeachments against Donald Trump, has the most experience and name recognition. He also has the backing of the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, whereas Porter counts Elizabeth Warren among her supporters. Both have more cash on hand than Lee, who also polls lower, despite impeccable liberal credentials that include being the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush unlimited war powers after 9/11.
One thing that’s clear: that whoever voters choose, it will be someone to the left of Feinstein. Gustavo Arellano, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, describes the changing of the guard as a completion of California’s political arc.
In the early 1970s, more than half of Californians voted to re-elect Richard Nixon and even San Francisco had a Republican mayor. Fast-forward to now, and Democratic state lawmakers in Sacramento outnumber Republicans by a ridiculous margin: 62 Democrats versus 18 Republicans in the assembly, and a senate composed of 32 Democrats and only eight Republicans. California hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2007, when Arnold Schwarzenegger left the governor’s mansion, and its voters are increasingly the most liberal and diverse in the nation.
“Dianne Feinstein leaving office marks the end of an era where California politics were more moderate,” said Arellano, who credits the California Republican party’s racially divisive position on immigration with laying the groundwork for the Democrats’ seemingly permanent lock on state politics. “California has always been a bellwether in so many things,” he said.
“The fact that the two leading candidates to replace Feinstein are progressive Democrats is a victory for the left. But it’s also a warning for Republicans: this will be your fate if you don’t get your act together.”
A ‘miserable’ beginning
Feinstein’s journey from San Francisco’s city hall to Washington began in 1969 when she first joined the city’s board of supervisors. It was a tumultuous era marked by anti-Vietnam war protests and, particularly in San Francisco, rising demands for equality by women and gay people. For Feinstein, the late 60s and early 70s provided ample opportunity to challenge sexist stereotypes in American politics.
It’s difficult to overstate Feinstein’s role as a political pioneer, said Jerry Roberts, a former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote a 1994 biography of Feinstein that focused on her role in city politics. “She was a trailblazer who knocked down doors for women,” he continued. “Her legacy is Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Kamala Harris and all the women who came after her.”
Feinstein lost two successive races for San Francisco mayor in the 1970s. “It was largely because voters and women in particular still didn’t feel comfortable with women in office,” Roberts said. Feinstein eventually assumed the role by dint of tragedy, when George Moscone, the city’s Democratic mayor, was assassinated by a disgruntled city official in 1978. The same shooter also murdered Harvey Milk, a city supervisor and the first openly gay man to hold public office in the nation.
“She got into office the most miserable way,” said Roberts.
Feinstein quickly developed a bipartisan reputation as a hard-nosed workaholic who early on recognized the danger of Aids, crusading against gay bathhouses while defending the dignity of the disease’s victims. She was legendary for responding to the concerns of her constituents, and to the amusement of local journalists would often respond to building blazes dressed in a yellow coat to show solidarity for the city’s firefighters.
“She was very hands on, so people hated working for her, which they still do, but the voters liked that,” explained Roberts. “When she left office nine years later, she had a 70% approval rating. It was pretty remarkable.”
After losing a gubernatorial race to Pete Wilson in 1990, Feinstein positioned herself to statewide voters as a moderate centrist. Two years later, she won a special election to his vacant Senate seat. Her Senate victory joined those of fellow Californian Barbara Boxer and Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski to make 1992 the “Year of the Woman”.
Feinstein was re-elected two years later and authored the nation’s first federal assault weapons ban. Her hard work on Capitol Hill helped make her the first female chairperson of both the Senate rules and intelligence committees. But as her influence in Washington grew, she also cemented a reputation as a policy hawk who typically voted with Republicans on defense appropriations.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Feinstein became a key supporter of the US invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. She later changed her position on Iraq, saying she was misled by George Bush, and became an outspoken critic of the CIA’s use of torture in the war on terror, her investigation into which infamously led the agency to allegedly illegally spy on her office.
Outlasting her welcome
Her achievements as senator notwithstanding, the tide began to turn against her in recent years, and as the specter of her retirement loomed, so did questions of who should represent the next chapter of California politics.
When Feinstein last ran for her seat in 2018, the California Democratic party, in a display of long-simmering dissatisfaction with her moderate politics, backed her more liberal opponent from the state senate, Kevin De Leon. It’s a shift that makes sense to Mark Baldassare, a survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California and a longtime political observer. “The state’s electorate is more racially and ethnically diverse now, especially among Democrats, a quarter of whom are Latino.”
After nearly six full terms in office, Feinstein seemed unfocused and out of touch to both staffers and colleagues. In October 2020, following the confirmation of Donald Trump’s supreme court pick Amy Coney Barrett, Feinstein drew ire if not outright bewilderment among Democrats for hugging the Republican Lindsey Graham, who was instrumental in securing the conservative domination of the court, and praising the volatile proceedings as “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in”.
The Coney Barrett fiasco led to calls for Feinstein’s ouster from Senate leadership appointments as well as concerns about her mental state. In retrospect, it marked the beginning of the end of her career in Washington. More recent headlines have focused on her physical frailty, particularly after a dose of shingles last month sent her to the hospital.
“Progressives have always despised Feinstein going back to her days in San Francisco,” remarked the Times’ Arellano. “Even now, everybody is giving respect to her for retiring but nobody is shedding any tears.”
A typical perspective among progressives is that of Marc Cooper, a former Nation magazine writer and journalism professor at the University of Southern California who now publishes an online political newsletter. To him, Feinstein’s legacy in California is the Democratic leadership’s abandonment of grassroots, anti-war politics in favor of large donor-dominated neoliberal elitism.
“You can pick apart Feinstein and say there are times she’s acted like a Republican, but it’s a waste of time,” Cooper said. “We have never had a point in my lifetime when the political world is more distant from most people’s lives than it is now. The Democratic party in California used to be quite vibrant and that’s all been replaced by money.”
Not everyone is quite so harsh, with others describing Feinstein a venerable figure who simply outlasted her welcome. “Feinstein is a great woman,” argued the noted California journalist and author Anne Louise Bardach. “She’s been tremendous, but she overstayed her time.” Bardach believes the longtime illness and eventual death last year of Feinstein’s second husband, Richard Blum, took an immense emotional toll.” I think it was probably a huge burden for her,” Bardach said. “If he had been alive, she would have likely stepped down much earlier.”
The Guardian reached out to Feinstein for an interview, but did not hear back.
California’s next political chapter
California voters will get their first chance to weigh in on Feinstein’s successor in the March 2024 Democratic primary race. That’s a good eight months before the general election, meaning that the public can expect a long ride of campaigning and political jockeying, including expensive television ads, and the possibility of public debates and even personal attacks.
All of that, however, assumes that Feinstein does not retire early or leave office for medical reasons. If that happens, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has the responsibility to choose her immediate replacement, and has already pledged that person will be a Black woman.
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College in southern California, believes that Newsom is unlikely to appoint Lee, however, as that would unfairly tip the race in her favor. “I’m sure he’s hoping not to have to make that decision,” Balma said of Newsom. One name that came up among those close to Newsom is Willie Brown, the longtime Democratic kingmaker and retired San Francisco mayor, according to Balma. “To be a caretaker senator would be the crowning achievement of his political career.”
Assuming that scenario doesn’t play out, polling has so far suggested that the deep-pocketed Schiff has the lead, with Porter closely behind and Lee a distant third.
Making the race more complicated is the fact that California’s primary laws allow the top two vote-winners regardless of political party in the March primary race to run for the general election in November. According to Balma, the consensus in Sacramento is that the last thing the party wants is a weakened Democrat allowing room for a Republican challenger to win.
“The Democrats don’t want two candidates fighting between March and November with negative attacks and commercials telling the voters how bad they are.”
Regardless, the nation will be watching closely.
“It’s a long way to the primary, but this race is attracting national attention because it’s indicative of the new leadership in California and what it means nationally for the future of the Democratic party,” said Baldassare. “There’s no question that there are some big shoes to fill.”