I was texting with a Democratic member of Congress the other day when I casually mentioned a figure that had confounded me: Adam Schiff, the highly-visible Mueller-era liberal hero who represents the wealthy L.A. adjacent exurbs, had raised $18.6 million dollars this cycle between his campaign committee and leadership PAC. In fact, I noted, Schiff has $20 million in his war chest. “Holy Fuck, that’s a huge amount” this member responded, wholly gobsmacked, but fully cognizant that Schiff’s financial prowess was his most tantalizing argument to replace Nancy Pelosi if or when she steps down after the midterms. (I’ll spare you the bellicose, obfuscating pushback from her spokesperson, who denies this without actually denying it.)
Schiff, after all, has always been an epic fundraiser, and he’s developed a Pelosi-esque national network to match. Schiff’s haul this cycle, in particular, is a powerful point of juxtaposition with the other members of the House vying for leadership in a post-Pelosiverse. Pelosi, of course, has raised the most of any member, with $34.5 million dollars between her campaign committee and leadership PAC, but even her war chest is smaller than Schiff’s as of the June 30 F.E.C. filing, with $16.5 million cash on hand. And none of Pelosi’s lieutenants in the leadership lineup have even raised more than $10.5 million this cycle between their campaign committees and leadership PACs. Indeed, by comparison, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has $3.5 million cash on hand; Whip Jim Clyburn has $3 million; Democratic Caucus chairman (and presumed frontrunner to fill Pelosi’s shoes) Hakeem Jeffries has $3.2 million; Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark has $1.5 million; and vice chair of the Democratic caucus Pete Aguilar has $2.6 million.
Not surprisingly, Schiff’s massive cash pile has led to whispers among members about why he is holding on to so much dough during such a consequential period in the cycle. After all, members of leadership are expected to spend their war chests to help the conference. If Schiff wants to be minority leader or hold some other position in leadership, some have wondered, why wouldn’t he be leaning into his fundraising powers to engender support and fealty from the caucus? As one leadership aide succinctly mused: “Why does Adam Schiff have $19 million in the bank in the fight of our lives?”
Schiff the Benefactor
This dogpiling may be more than a little unjust. A source familiar with Schiff’s camp said it’s unfair to expect Schiff, who is not in leadership, to spend like Pelosi’s actual lieutenants. Meanwhile, Schiff has supported the campaigns of other members in material ways. He’s frequently acted as a top surrogate on the trail, flying from Boston to Philadelphia to the Hamptons all summer. He has also appeared, or is scheduled as a guest, at more than 130 campaign events this cycle. In September alone, he raised or gave more than $1.1 million for House candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A single event that he headlined brought in $160,000 for a campaign.
According to a source familiar with his camp, Schiff has raised or given more than $11 million this cycle to other candidates and the D.C.C.C. As of September, according to this person, Schiff has given more than $800,000 to the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee, or more than 250 percent of his required due. He is also maxing out to all frontline members and Democratic challenger candidates.
But all of that isn’t quite enough for sharp-elbowed colleagues and critics who argue that he should be using every penny to help save the House, rather than shoring up cash to keep his options open. (“They’re looking for ways to criticize the guy,” countered a Schiff ally. “Let’s wait to see where it is at the end of the cycle.”) The leadership sweepstakes, indeed, are racing into full tilt. Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar have formed a generational-tide-turning threesome with Jeffries at the top. At the same time, Hoyer and Clyburn are calling around to see how they will have a seat at the table, with Hoyer still hopeful for leader. Pelosi still hasn’t made up her mind and won’t until after the election, I’m told.
Politico reported on Friday that Schiff gathered a group of Democrats to talk about his own leadership bid. But Schiff hasn’t figured out how to sandwich himself into the structure if that trial balloon bursts. If the Republicans take back the House, as is expected, Schiff will be in some sort of back-bencher purgatory, since Kevin McCarthy has made it clear that he will remove him from the prestigious Intel Committee, where he is chair, out of retribution for pushing Marjorie Taylor Greene off the committee. Unfortunately for Schiff, House leadership contests are more like hysterical high school cafeteria food fights than corporate board power plays—popularity outweighs substance and grace. His love of the limelight and TV grandstanding certainly hasn’t helped his position with colleagues.
Even his status as one of Pelosi’s favorite members may not save him from potential irrelevance in the next congress. I’ve heard that Pelosi has been eager to help foam the runway for Schiff to land a statewide position in California, but there are only so many spots available. One is the state attorney general posting, which I’m told Schiff asked Governor Gavin Newsom about last year when Xavier Becerra vacated the position to run Biden’s Health and Human Services department. Newsom appointed Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta instead. “He’s been trying to get out of Washington for years,” said a longtime California Democrat. “Everytime there’s a statewide election he’s rumored to be running.”
The $20 Million Question
That’s why it’s not so simple for Schiff, and why the guy does need the dough to keep his option open. Giving away all of his cash in a go-broke-or-go-home bid for leadership doesn’t set him up for an open Senate seat in California, for instance, when the 89-year-old Dianne Feinstein presumably retires in 2024. As always, timing is everything, and Schiff could be out of luck if Feinstein were to step down early, leaving Newsom the option to appoint her successor.
If Schiff doesn’t end up running for the Senate seat, there’s always governor or lieutenant governor, when Newsom’s term is up in ‘26 (or before, if he steps down to run for president). But whatever statewide position Schiff eventually guns for, he’ll be operating in an expensive media market. It’s not uncommon to spend $100 million in a statewide race in California. One California strategist quipped that Schiff’s $20 million might get him six weeks of advertising statewide. After all, Newsom raised $50 million just for last year’s recall election. It explains, too, why Rep. Katie Porter, who also has her eye on Feinstein’s seat, has $19.9 million in her war chest—the only member who comes even close to Schiff besides Pelosi—although she’ll likely burn through much of her cash this cycle during a tough reelection in an expensive swing district in Orange County.
Of course, all of these worries for Schiff could easily be wiped away if he were to get an appointment in the Biden administration in some sort of national security position. Until then, the whispers about his money may end up overshadowing his hyperactive fundraising efforts for other members. These are the toughest challenges of politics, as Schiff knows. And it’s what the money’s for.