California’s Senate race is setting up an ideological battle for Democrats’ future

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) outside the US Capitol on January 26, 2023. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive stalwart, entered a high-profile race that could tell us a lot about the future of the Democratic Party.

The field to succeed Dianne Feinstein in the US Senate got even more crowded this week: longtime California Rep. Barbara Lee announced that she would be running for Senate after all, confirming rumors and reporting that she was preparing for a 2024 run.

Though Lee’s entry into the race had been anticipated for some time, and disclosed to members of the Congressional Black Caucus last month, the 12-term congresswoman announced her campaign in a three-minute video on Twitter on Tuesday a week after Feinstein, who is 89 and the oldest and most senior Democrat in the Senate, said she would not run for a sixth term.

The California Senate race now features an intra-party contest between some of the country’s most well-known Democratic stars, each with contrasting brands of progressivism and liberalism, born of different eras of American politics. The race will likely offer a window into what the different, diverse demographic groups of the Democratic base want from the party, and lessons for how candidates can use their track records and biographies to make a broader pitch to voters. And it will likely be one of the most expensive Senate races in history: estimates by California politicos suggest the top candidates will have to spend anywhere from $20 to $100 million to win.

In the video, Lee cast herself as an old-school progressive, highlighting her activism for women and LGBTQ+ Americans, her legislative record in California and in Congress, and her independence. Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 that gave George W. Bush sweeping anti-terrorism war powers.

“When you stand on the side of justice, you don’t quit if they don’t give you a seat at the table,” she said in the announcement. “You bring a folding chair for everyone.”

Lee now joins Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter as the most prominent declared Senate candidates who will face off in California’s top-two primary next year, before the general election. Schiff and Porter both represent districts based in Southern California (Los Angeles and Orange County respectively), making Lee the first prominent Northern Californian to enter the race.

With her announcement, she’s adding a new level of complexity to the messy Senate election that’s about to pick up steam. Lee is an established, recognized, and respected member of Congress and Californian, with life experience growing up in the San Fernando Valley (part of Los Angeles) and activism in Oakland and the East Bay (in the north). She is a trailblazer on a score of progressive concerns, leading on issues related to LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and poverty before they became popular with the Democratic Party’s mainstream.

Now she faces the central challenge of reminding voters of that legacy to distinguish herself from the other candidates trying to occupy the progressive wing of the party. She must do this while also quieting concerns about her age (she is 76, turning 77 this summer), and while raising money. (Schiff and Porter are two of the party’s best fundraisers, and raised more money on their campaign launch days than Lee had in the bank to begin with.)

Barbara Lee and the debate about age in politics

Given the national conversation about age in politics, Lee doesn’t seem too worried about concerns about her age just yet. “For those who say my time has passed, well, when does making change go out of style?” she stated in her announcement. And in an interview shortly after the news dropped, she told The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli that her age will be an asset: “What I bring is not only my lived experiences, but my history of my progressive values and being able to turn my lived experiences into policy initiatives,” she said.

Lee is right to point out accomplishments that have come out of her lived experience and activism. She authored California’s Violence Against Women Act with the memory of living in an abusive relationship, and was an early advocate for LGBTQ people, writing the state’s Hate Crimes Reduction Act.

She was born in Texas and grew up in the segregated South before moving with her family to Los Angeles, where she worked with the NAACP to integrate her high school’s cheerleading squad. And as a single mother going to college, she received public assistance. After a career of local organizing and getting a master’s degree at UC Berkeley, she founded a community organization to provide mental health services to East Bay residents. And later, after working on Capitol Hill and serving in the California Assembly and Senate, she worked in Congress to create the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief with George W. Bush.

How important will Lee’s progressive legacy be?

This progressive legacy distinguishes her from either Porter or Schiff, who are more recent liberal and progressive stars, elevated during the Trump years. And this is the legacy that she will have to reacquaint millions of Californians with, despite not having the same financial backing as Porter or Schiff to get her message out there. Porter ended the 2022 midterms cycle with more than $7 million of cash on hand; Schiff with $20 million; and they have both since raised millions more. Lee, meanwhile, had about $50,000 left when the season ended.

Endorsements also tell a story of competing power centers in the Democratic Party. Lee currently has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political arm (she led the CBC during the early Obama years).

Schiff has the most backing from the party’s establishment, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a score of current and former California representatives. In that vein, he falls in the more moderate range of the party. He was a centrist Democrat when he entered Congress and joined the conservative and moderate Blue Dog Democrats. Though he has since pushed for limits on the presidency’s war powers, he originally voted for both the 2001 AUMF that Lee opposed, the more controversial 2002 AUMF that authorized force in Iraq, and eventually, the Patriot Act, which expanded federal law enforcement’s ability to surveil Americans. He built his national security and foreign policy credentials through the House Intelligence Committee, and expanded his name recognition during the impeachments of Donald Trump.

Porter, meanwhile, is backed by her old mentor, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Like Warren, she represents the Democratic Party’s more recently ascendant progressive wing, which also gained influence during the Trump years. Porter was the first to declare her candidacy for the seat, and has since been campaigning as a fresher, younger face of the party’s left flank and its future in Congress.

This scramble between the candidates to claim California’s progressive mantle shows just how much the state — and the party — have moved left during the Trump years, and then moved to the center during the Biden years. Despite the leftward lurch by candidates during the 2020 Democratic primary, the Biden administration has had a moderating effect on the party, even as Biden has accomplished many traditionally progressive economic goals like the (albeit temporary) expansion of the social safety net and action on climate change.

Part of Lee’s challenge will come from fundraising: She has said she won’t take corporate PAC money, and she acknowledges that as a Black progressive woman, she doesn’t have the same networks to raise money. Another comes from the state’s geography: Southern California simply has more voters than Northern California.

But a Lee victory would mean more than a triumph for ideological progressives. There are currently no Black women serving in the US Senate, something she referenced in her launch: “Even though there are no African American women in the United States Senate, we won’t let that stop us either.” If elected, she’d be just the third Black woman to serve in the Senate.

Her identity, lived experience, and track record all offer her ways to stand out from the mostly white crowd. That challenge, of differentiating oneself in a crowd of progressives, is the central challenge of California’s senate race right now.

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