Feinstein Succession Dish & Primary Foreplay

Coney Barrett Confirmation
Senator Dianne Feinstein is still in the Senate and has made no indication that she plans to step down, despite widespread concerns about her age and her health. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Senator Dianne Feinstein is still in the Senate and has made no indication that she plans to step down, despite widespread concerns about her age (she’s nine years older than Joe Biden) and her health. Of course, none of that has stopped would-be successors like Katie Porter and Barbara Lee from making it known they’re eyeing her seat. Adam Schiff hasn’t declared his aspirations publicly, but it’s widely understood inside Capitol Hill that his interest in Feinstein’s seat is what held him back from challenging Hakeem Jeffries for Minority Leader. There will be other contenders, too—these top Democratic seats don’t open up every day in California. 

The looming question, among others, formed the basis of my intimate chat about the real inside conversations coursing through our politics right now.

Feinstein Political Correctness

Tara: Peter, I want to start off by asking you about the political state of play in your home state of California. Can you lay out the landscape for me and what we should expect? 

Peter: Sure, I’ll start with Feinstein, who is 89 and—as you noted—facing serious questions about her physical and mental decline. She hasn’t said if she will run again, but no one in California politics believes she will. If she did, she’d almost certainly lose a Democratic primary in a state that has drifted leftward and away from Feinstein’s institutionalist politics. Feinstein is a complete non-factor in California politics right now. Her political capital is almost non-existent. 

That’s one reason that Porter, the whiteboard-wielding bankruptcy lawyer-turned-congresswoman from Orange County, wasn’t afraid to jump in the race even before Feinstein announced her plans, giving her a first-step advantage against several possible Democratic opponents in what’s sure to be a crowded primary for a seat that hasn’t been open in 30 years. Porter raised $1.3 million in her first day as a candidate, the kind of money she’ll need to run an expensive statewide campaign in 16 different media markets. Feinstein’s Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren quickly endorsed Porter, one of her former Harvard law students, just a few days after entering the race, another sign that DiFi doesn’t have much juice at this point. I’m told that Porter was phoning supporters and making staff offers over the holidays in preparation for her launch last week. Her likely opponents and fellow members of Congress—Schiff and Lee, of course, but also Ro Khanna—were catching wind of Porter’s moves, but they seemed fine with letting her go first.

That’s because Porter’s decision to announce last week—almost a year and a half before next summer’s primary—was frankly a little tone deaf, and not because she decided to make her move before Feinstein announced her retirement. While Porter was texting out fundraising appeals describing herself as a mom “who drives a minivan and uses whiteboard to break down the math behind corruption and greed,” many of the Californians on the receiving end of those texts were grappling with the worst storms in more than a century. Roughly 34 million people in California were under a flood watch, mudslides and rising waters were forcing evacuations up and down the coast, and 19 people were killed—a death toll that could rise. Porter’s home of Orange County is mostly insulated from the damage, but entire towns in central California are underwater. 

Aides to Feinstein, Schiff, and Khanna pointed out to reporters—on background, of course—that their bosses were focused on the storms, not an upcoming political campaign. Will voters remember the details of Porter’s announcement come next year? Maybe not. Can the business of politics carry on at the same time a natural disaster is unfolding? Sure. But a more canny politician would have waited an extra week to jump in the race, at least until Californians were able to towel off. The announcement raised, for me at least, questions about her political finesse and attention to detail, which are at the heart of her successful political brand.

Tara: I wonder if Feinstein won’t endorse Porter because she didn’t wait for her retirement announcement. Feinstein could end up surprising everyone, for instance, by endorsing Schiff. Feinstein is still very close to Nancy Pelosi, and Pelosi is very close to Schiff. There’s also the chance that Feinstein resigns early and Governor Gavin Newsom appoints a successor. But if there is a race, how are you handicapping it? 

Peter: Beyond the nitty gritty of Porter’s launch, the California Senate race will be a good watch for anyone interested in the future of the Democratic Party. California hasn’t seen a competitive Democratic Senate primary in a good while. Kamala Harris romped in the primary and general election back in 2016. Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to the Harris seat when she became vice president, and he was easily elected last November. 

And all of the Democrats looking at the 2024 race are well-known and well-funded. Schiff, best known for never turning down a cable hit during Congress’s many investigations of Donald Trump, has hoarded $20 million for the race. Porter is a phenomenal fundraiser who has a national profile thanks to her media appearances and Resistance-era interrogations of C.E.O.s and government officials on the House Financial Services Committee. Lee is a staunch anti-war progressive who hails from the Bay Area, distinguishing herself from Porter and Schiff, both southern Californians. She’d also be the only Black candidate in the race. Khanna has perhaps the most interesting profile. He’s known as a Bernie Sanders ally in Washington, but his roots are in Silicon Valley, and he won his seat to Congress by unseating a labor-backed incumbent with money from the tech community, which I assume he would tap into again. I wrote about his campaign for CNN back in 2014. Khanna has definitely shifted identities over the years, but he’s pretty good at talking to both progressives and the neolib crowd. 

In a state so heavily Democratic, the primary will be a race to the left. Unless a particularly compelling anti-Newsom MAGA Republican jumps in and somehow cobbles together a plurality of the vote in a super-crowded race, the top-two finishers in next year’s primary year will likely both be Democrats. I’m curious to see who can build the strongest coalition in a state that’s diverse but also segregated—culturally, racially and economically. Porter and Schiff are sort of in the same white liberal lane. They’re both well-funded, nationally-known Resistance darlings who will be competing for college-educated white people who watch MSNBC. Khanna and Lee will have some strength among progressives, labor unions, and policy activists. I can see both of them making a play for young people, too. But looking at the field, it’s hard to see who has strength with working class people of color or Latinos, who make up about a quarter of the statewide vote in California. I don’t see those groups voting Republican, but I also don’t see them getting fired up for any of the above Democrats. 

Now that I think about it, it does seem like there might be room for some conservative Democrat to run to the middle on homelessness and public safety while the rest of the candidates try to out-liberal each other.

Tara: That’s a good point Peter. After all, a big part of the reason that McCarthy even has a majority is because of moderate Republicans who won in California. 

Binders Full of Mishandled Docs

Peter: Someone like Rick Caruso or former L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva might fit the bill. But Tara, I want to turn the telescope around to the big story in your neck of the woods. What are Democratic lawmakers saying about Biden’s classified document issue? I’m fascinated by how the D.C. press seems to be rushing to equate this to the Trump document scandal. It stands in pretty stark contrast to some legal experts who say there really isn’t much to see here. What do you think?

Tara: Democratic lawmakers are privately agitated over this because they knew that Merrick Garland had a much stronger case against Trump on the document mishandling than proving that he incited an insurrection. There were also a lot of smoke signals that seemed to support the notion that Garland’s special counsel, Jack Smith, was close to an indictment. Now, the fact that Biden was essentially guilty of the same thing puts Garland in a much more difficult position. 

They knew the special counsel was the only way to go about it. I think no matter how you put it, mishandling documents is a crime that you or I might go to jail for. In a political world, where the details and nuance don’t matter when you’re talking in soundbites and cutting ads, it’s hard to win on the details. If you’re defending yourself, you’re probably losing. When the news first broke about the documents being in a locked drawer in a library, the networks and journalists went out of their way to explain how these two cases are different: for one, they said Trump had more documents, he refused to hand them over, and he had them in an unsecure location, a locked basement in Mar-a-lago. But then, just days later, it turns out Biden had some classified documents in an even less secure location—next to the Corvette in his garage. (But he locks his garage, he says!)

There’s also the whole issue of transparency and when the White House knew. Turns out, before the midterms. The drip-drip of news doesn’t give you much confidence that there isn’t more, and I think Democratic lawmakers and surrogates are offering more tepid defenses because there’s no indication from the White House that there isn’t more. Consider the comment that Schiff made on the Sunday shows about how he wants to know if there was “any risk of exposure and what the harm would be [to national security] and whether any mitigation needs to be done.” Maybe if Biden hadn’t hit Trump for mishandling documents, calling it irresponsible and questioning how it was even possible on 60 Minutes, it would have been easier to defend. Yes, intent matters, but it’s also really difficult to prove, like inciting an insurrection. 

Democrats are in a tough spot right now defending Biden because they don’t know if another shoe is about to drop. They were supposed to be “the adults”—the great contrast with Trump. And while it may have been a quickly corrected mistake, national security experts and Biden allies have been belaboring for months how irresponsible and dangerous it is to mishandle classified documents and how pedestrians go to jail for the same. Now we’re supposed to believe it was an innocent staff mishap? How can Biden hit Trump for this dangerous mistake on the campaign trail when he did the same? It’s sort of like 2012 when Mitt Romney could never really slug Obama on Obamacare, because he basically instituted the same program in Massachusetts.  

This was the manna from heaven that the Republicans needed. The Hunter Biden investigation was complicated; as Republicans have learned from the Democrats’ failed investigations against Trump , foreign influence is difficult to understand and hard to prove. (Also, Hunter has a drug addiction, which just makes him a more sympathetic character.) I wonder if this headache is going to change Biden’s calculation on reelection in 2024. Although, who knows, he may dig in. At the very least, it likely pushed back his reelection announcement.

Primary Colors

Tara: Peter, you’ve covered presidential campaigns. What do you think about all of the backlash to Biden choosing South Carolina as the first primary state? 

Peter: Well, let me start with the obvious. Moving South Carolina to the front of the primary calendar is both an obvious patronage move, rewarding the state for helping Biden clinch the Democratic nomination, as well as a strategy to protect an 80-year old incumbent from a younger or more progressive primary challenger. I say these things as someone who adores South Carolina and has covered politics there for years—going all the way back to Biden’s ill-fated 2008 primary campaign in the state. I’ll even make the case for why South Carolina should go first! It’s actually smaller than Iowa, so it’s easy for candidates to drive around and touch almost every important media market in a single day. It’s a relatively affordable place to run television ads. South Carolina might not be a competitive state in a general election, but their TV markets bleed into Georgia and North Carolina, two competitive battlegrounds. And the main argument is the same one Biden allies are making: Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, just South Carolina puts Black voters at the front and center of the process. 

The average voter in the Democratic primary, according to South Carolina exit polls, is a middle-aged working black woman who didn’t go to college and goes to church every Sunday. Those voters helped make Biden the Democratic nominee and president. But I’d add something else in their favor: Campaigning in South Carolina forces Democrats to talk to white people, and not just white progressives but white moderates. Democratic presidential candidates have been losing white support since 2004. Boring moderate Joe Biden almost broke even with white voters in 2020 after Hillary Clinton lost them by 16 points four years prior, a decisive gain that helped him beat Trump. Black voters decide primaries, but suburban whites decide general elections. South Carolina gets you both.

That, of course, is the Biden coalition. And party coalitions mutate over time, which means South Carolina might not be an ideal kickoff state down the road. The argument against South Carolina was maybe best articulated by Bernie Sanders’ former campaign manager Faiz Shakir in The New York Times. Yes, he wrote, Iowa needs to go. The caucus process there is broken and the state’s milk-white voters don’t look anything like the rest of the Democratic Party in other states. But South Carolina is not the answer, Shakir said, since the state has almost no labor presence and isn’t competitive in a general election. Shakir has his own bias—Black voters rejected Sanders at almost every turn, including in the Palmetto State—but he and others have made a credible case that South Carolina shouldn’t even be among the first four or five primary states at all.

The debate is flaring most acutely right now in New Hampshire, which is refusing to acquiesce to the Democratic National Committee’s demands, via the Biden White House, that it move its primary back behind South Carolina’s, which would happen on Feb. 3, 2024. That arrangement would end New Hampshire’s proud and stubbornly-held role as the first-in-the-nation primary, a storied tradition going back half a century. New Hampshire and Nevada would go a week after South Carolina under the D.N.C.’s proposal, followed by Georgia and Michigan after that. 

Biden is playing a risky game here. New Hampshire’s constitution mandates their primary goes first, and sure, who cares about puny state law? Why shouldn’t Biden wave them off? But the state is controlled by a Republican governor and Republican legislature. They have no interest in abiding by the D.N.C.’s sternly-worded letters. So it’s unlikely New Hampshire will move their primary date. The state would then be in violation of the new D.N.C. rules, theoretically meaning their primary delegates wouldn’t count and any challenger to Biden who files in New Hampshire would be somehow sanctioned, perhaps banned from any possible debate stages. 

We haven’t seen a serious challenge to an incumbent Democratic president since Ted Kennedy muddied his expensive loafers in Iowa and campaigned against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Biden isn’t likely to face a serious Eugene McCarthy-style situation in the primary, but polls do show an appetite among Democrats, especially young ones, for a new face. Some gadfly candidate could plant a flag in New Hampshire, holler about Biden’s shortcomings, and garner some media attention in the process, causing headaches for Biden even as he coasts to re-nomination. You reported, Tara, that Marianne Williamson is making some early state hires in South Carolina and she might be that person, even if she goes nowhere. 

Meanwhile, Tara, what’s the latest on the D.N.C. convention? 

Tara: Well, the new primary calendar and the convention site were supposed to be decided by now, so I suspect that we’ll have some answers soon. Some at the D.N.C. are getting antsy about this prolonged debate, thinking it’s wasted time. In the meantime, the convention cities are still aggressively making their pitch in this final hour. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is hosting its 91st Winter Meeting in D.C. this week, and Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens is throwing a cocktail party to make a last ditch pitch for his city. I’ve heard that he’s adamant that he wants to get things done. 

But the issue hanging over the Atlanta bid has been logistics—that it’s a city that’s too spread out and there are questions about hotel capacity, despite the strong showing from Raphael Warnock. I bet if Stacy Abrams had won the governor’s race, logistics wouldn’t be a question, but the abortion trigger laws still hang around in the picture. In the meantime, I’m hearing Chicago is a strong frontrunner thanks to the cash-flush J.B. Pritzker who is on the case with a labor friendly city that can handle that kind of production. 
Obviously, the fear of crime is a lingering issue. I’ve heard New York is still in the game thanks to D.N.C. alum Leah Daughtry, who’s been hired to make the case that New York is made for these kinds of events, even if the 2004 R.N.C. at Madison Square Garden unleashed a world of hell on the city. We’ll know soon enough but I’m starting to think it will be Chicago. There is almost zero buzz about Houston.