There’s a new senator in Washington, D.C., this week: Laphonza Butler, a former president of Emily’s List, was tapped by California Governor Gavin Newsom to fill out the term of the late Dianne Feinstein. Butler’s path to the Senate—where she will be the lone Black woman in the upper body and the first to call that chamber home since Vice President Kamala Harris—was partly due to a set of baroque promises Newsom made in advance of Feinstein’s death: to select a Black woman for the post and to not select any of the Democrats already running for the seat in 2024, so as to not play favorites.
It is perhaps in furtherance of that latter pledge that Newsom roamed rather far afield to tap Butler, who resides in Maryland as opposed to California. But his apparent intention to pick a placeholder seems not to have been made clear to Butler herself, as she has not ruled out running to retain the seat.
So that’s something of a whoopsie! But it’s not the main reason that Newsom perhaps should have put his finger on the scale: The California primary for U.S. Senate has become a black hole of Democratic donor money, to the exclusion of what could be more consequential races.
Opportunities to become California’s senator have been in short supply in recent years, so it’s not a surprise that this race, in a state known for pricey political contests, was expected to become the most expensive Senate race in history. But now, as a result of Feinstein’s death, there will be not just the usual primary and general election next year but also special elections—meaning that donors normally constrained by maximum allowances will be permitted to double-dip for their favored candidates.
California Representative Adam Schiff already has raised what I would charitably call an unreasonable—perhaps even unspendable—amount of money. Axios reported in July that Schiff had almost $30 million in hand—“more than any other federal candidate, including for president.” After that figure ticked up slightly in the most recent fundraising quarter, Aaron Kleinman, the director of research at the States Project, made a canny observation: “In other words he has more cash on hand for a race Democrats are guaranteed to win than every single Democrat running for the Virginia House (which either party could control after November) has combined.”
The importance of the Virginia elections is clear: Democrats could stop the political career of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—who is term-limited in the Old Dominion and said to be weighing a presidential run based on how Virginia Republicans fare in November—in its tracks. Democrats also have a generally daunting Senate map in 2024, and a highly competitive gubernatorial contest in Kentucky on the wing.
This is not to say that the California primary isn’t worth Democrats’ attention. People have some passionate, principled, and well-informed opinions of who among that field—which Schiff has largely led over Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, according to the scant polling that’s been done—should be Feinstein’s successor. I’ve no doubt that I could develop my own ideas on the matter if I took as much time as those with a vested interest. That doesn’t really change the fact that Democrats are going to retain this seat and that the differences between these candidates will largely fade into the grayscale once a winner is seated.
Which is why I wish Newsom, who seems to harbor ambition about becoming a national leader of his party, had taken a stab at ending this primary himself. He could have given the nod to Schiff and called a halt to the implacable donor arms race. Barring that, he could have just fully honored his commitment to upping the representation of Black women in the Senate by tapping Lee, who was already running. That might not have sent a strong enough signal to turn off the money spigot, but it would have sent a worthy message to the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Realistically, Newsom is too calculated to have seriously considered doing all that. His pledge to stay out of the fray was probably less about keeping the spirit of fair competition alive than about not wanting to stick his neck out, only to have California voters chop it off. But those who are, or aspire to be, Democratic standard-bearers ought to be thinking about the party’s needs across the country, and that means not encouraging a donor sinkhole in their own backyard. There are more critical elections and bigger prizes on which that boodle is better spent.
Democrats have, in recent years, demonstrated the tendency to dream a little too big and pile untold sums of campaign cash in the coffers of a litany of no-hopers. That’s not what’s going on here. But if Democrats are not careful, they could screw up from the opposite direction, denying critical resources to winnable races in the service of a seat they’re destined to get anyway. It’s time to stop emptying your wallets on this Senate primary and let these wannabe senators from California fend for themselves.