Rep. Barbara Lee tells colleagues she plans to run for Feinstein’s Senate seat

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, a veteran progressive with more than three decades of experience in California politics, told fellow congressmen Wednesday that she plans to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2024.

Lee announced her intentions during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus and received a standing ovation, but has not officially confirmed that she has run or formed an official Senate committee to raise money in a race that is expected to be both costly as well as being intensely contested.

Lee’s private disclosure comes just a day after Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) launched her campaign to replace 89-year-old Feinstein, who has not yet announced whether she intends to retire at the end of her term step. One of the most coveted posts in California politics, Feinstein’s Senate seat is widely expected to attract the interest of some of the state’s most ambitious and prominent elected leaders.

Lee’s announcement was corroborated by a source close to the congressmen, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak out about their political plans. The source warned that the congresswoman has not announced a Senate campaign — only her intention to run. The news was first reported by Politico.

Elected to Congress in 1998 after nearly a decade in the California Legislature, Lee is a past Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a past Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has tried unsuccessfully to join the House Democrat leadership three times in the past decade.

Lee gave the only “no” vote against authorizing the use of military force after the 11 attacks. Lee was also a strong advocate of expanding access to abortion by repealing the so-called Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions unless it is necessary to save a woman’s life or in cases of rape or incest.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (DN.Y.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, hailed Lee as a member of Congress who “knows how to deliver and get things done” and who has a firm understanding of how Washington works , skills he said would serve her well in the Senate.

“Her reputation is that she’s the fighter for the little guy. She’s a voice for the voiceless, and she’s fearless,” Meeks said. “They look at her as a person who will do what she believes in, but still knows how to work across borders to help her people.”

Meeks said the Congressional Black Caucus PAC will “absolutely” support her bid for Senate.

Other potential Senate nominees from California’s congressional delegation include Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) and Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin).

Schiff pulled out of a potential House leadership run after former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced she was stepping down, paving the way for Hakeem Jeffries of New York to become the top Democrat. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) also vowed to remove Schiff from the House Intelligence Committee, a panel he chaired before Republicans took over the chamber this month.

Khanna encouraged by allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for president, has announced that he will decide on a Senate nomination in the next few months.

While Lee’s liberal track record would appeal to a segment of California voters, she faces some significant headwinds. At 76, Lee could face opposition from voters seeking generational change in Washington, said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

“If the argument for leaving one of the most respected, impressive and popular California politicians in Dianne Feinstein is simply her age, then I think people will be looking for a much younger replacement,” Kousser said.

Lee may also struggle to win over moderate Californians, a crucial vote in a state with the top-two primary system that can favor politicians who lean more towards the middle.

“Barbara Lee has a more progressive profile than” other Democrats expected to run for the seat, said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at Sacramento State. “It’s an advantage for a subset of Californians, but not necessarily the voters you would need in a top-two system where you probably have two Democrats in the general election in that race.”

Additionally, Lee does not have the fundraising history of other Democrats in the race or weighing a run. In a state with some of the most expensive media markets in the country, the ability to raise tens of millions of dollars is critical.

“It makes a big difference. We’re not Wyoming, where you can knock on practically any door to win a Senate race,” Nalder said. “In California, you absolutely need a big media campaign and a ground game. Crazy how much money you in California.”

Lee ended her recent re-election campaign with less than $55,000 in cash, federal campaign records show. Khanna has more than $5 million in the bank, while Porter started her Senate bid with nearly $8 million in her campaign account and Schiff has more than $20 million.

Porter, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in Congress, raised $1.3 million online for the primary in the first 24 hours of its launch, according to her campaign.

Fresh from a competitive re-election to her Orange County district, Porter announced a Senate bid Tuesday morning, becoming the first major candidate to enter the field. But she drew criticism from potential rivals for her timing, which came as Californians grappled with deadly winter storms that killed at least 19 people.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ election in 2020 left her Senate seat vacant and the upper chamber without a single black woman. Newsom named former California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to succeed Harris. Padilla, the first Latino to represent the state in the Senate, was elected to the Senate in November for a full six-year term.

Newsom has said he would nominate a black woman to replace Feinstein if she vacated her seat early, and Lee was widely viewed as a top contender for an appointment. But Feinstein has said repeatedly that she intends to serve her full term, which expires in early 2025.

Feinstein, who was first elected in a special election in 1992, has not said whether she intends to run for re-election or retire. She told the Times last month that she would likely announce her intentions by spring.

The Senate race promises to have a significant impact on California’s 2024 congressional campaigns. Porter narrowly won her Orange County district, and Republicans had already identified him as one they hope to win next year. Republican Scott Baugh, who lost to Porter in November, said on social media that he plans to try again next year. Lee, Schiff and Khanna represent safe Democratic districts, but the vacancies could spark fierce intra-party competition.

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