The Appointment of Laphonza Butler and Its Implications for the California Senate Race
In a significant development, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed Laphonza Butler, the former president of Emily’s List, to the U.S. Senate. This appointment comes in the wake of the unfortunate passing of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. As Butler took the oath of office on Tuesday, it is expected that she will be a reliable liberal voice from the deep-blue state of California. However, this appointment adds an intriguing dimension to the ongoing 2024 Senate race in California.
One crucial aspect is that Butler has not yet confirmed whether she intends to campaign for a full Senate term. This leaves the door open for her to potentially join the already crowded field of Democratic candidates vying for the Senate seat. While Newsom had initially indicated that he would make an interim appointment, he did not place any restrictions on his appointee running for the seat. If Butler decides to run, she will face challenges such as low name recognition and the need to rapidly amass campaign funds. Nonetheless, her background and affiliations with interest groups closely aligned with the Democratic Party could position her as a viable contender. Even if Butler opts not to run, Feinstein’s passing will trigger a special election that will coincide with the regular contest, introducing additional dynamics into the race.
Should Butler choose to enter the race, she will have to contend with three prominent Democratic contenders who have been actively campaigning since early 2023: Representatives Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff. While Feinstein’s retirement was announced in February, Porter and Schiff had already thrown their hats in the ring, with Lee formally joining the race shortly after Feinstein’s announcement. It’s important to note that California employs a top-two primary system, allowing all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, to run together, with the two leading vote-getters advancing to the November election. This means that Butler wouldn’t necessarily need to secure victory in the primary to have a shot at retaining the Senate seat; she would only need to finish in the top two. In recent regular Senate races, California has seen two Democrats advancing to the general election twice out of four times, reflecting the state’s significant Democratic and Democratic-leaning voter base.
Nevertheless, finishing among the top two contenders would be a formidable challenge. Schiff and Porter have been formidable fundraising powerhouses, a critical advantage in a vast state where campaign advertising can be prohibitively expensive (California boasts four of the 30 largest television markets in the nation). Schiff had already amassed $21 million from his previous House campaigns in an uncontested district, providing him with a significant financial edge over his rivals. (Schiff recently disclosed that his campaign coffers held $32 million at the end of September, though official third-quarter fundraising reports won’t be available until mid-October.) While Porter had to allocate substantial resources to defend her competitive House seat in 2022, she still began her Senate campaign with over $7 million and had garnered $7.6 million from contributors by June 30. Meanwhile, Lee is banking on her status as arguably the most progressive candidate in the race to offset her comparatively smaller campaign war chest.
The appointment of Laphonza Butler has injected a dose of uncertainty into California’s 2024 Senate race, with its potential to reshape the dynamics of this closely watched contest. As candidates jockey for position and campaign strategies evolve, the Golden State’s political landscape remains fluid, setting the stage for a compelling electoral battle ahead.
Laphonza Butler’s Impact on California Senate Race: A Closer Look
Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom made a significant appointment by selecting former Emily’s List president Laphonza Butler to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat left by the late Senator Dianne Feinstein. While Butler’s appointment ensures a solidly liberal vote from California, it also introduces an intriguing dynamic into the 2024 Senate race, already well underway.
Butler, however, has not confirmed whether she will campaign for a full Senate term, leaving the possibility of her joining the crowded group of Democratic contenders open. Newsom initially indicated that he would make only an interim appointment but imposed no limitations on his appointee’s campaign activities. If Butler decides to run, she will face several challenges, including low name recognition and the need to quickly ramp up fundraising efforts. Nonetheless, her extensive background and involvement with interest groups closely tied to the Democratic Party could make her a credible contender.
Even if Butler opts not to run, Feinstein’s passing will trigger a special election, concurrent with the regular contest, potentially impacting the race in various ways.
The Current Democratic Landscape
The early primary polls suggest that Adam Schiff and Katie Porter may be the candidates to beat, though a substantial number of undecided voters remain in most surveys. A poll by Data Viewpoint in early October found Schiff and Porter both at 19 percent, with Lee trailing at 6 percent. Similarly, August surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Institute of Government Studies at the University of California-Berkeley showed Schiff at 20 percent and Porter in the teens, while Lee remained in the single digits. Notably, no notable Republicans have declared for the seat, which could lead to a fragmented GOP vote, favoring multiple Democratic candidates’ advancement.
Butler’s Compelling Biography
Laphonza Butler’s biography could resonate with California’s predominantly blue-leaning voters. Her appointment is historic as she becomes only the third Black woman to serve in the Senate and the first openly LGBTQ Black woman. A native of Mississippi, Butler hails from a working-class family that faced adversity when her father passed away when she was 16. She went on to earn her degree from Jackson State University, a historically Black college or university.
Furthermore, Butler’s career has deeply entrenched her in Democratic politics, which could boost her appeal among voters and donors. She most recently served as the president of Emily’s List, a prominent political action committee advocating for female Democratic candidates supporting abortion rights. Her prior roles as a national organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and her decade-long leadership of SEIU Local 2015 in California, representing long-term care workers, have strengthened her ties to the Democratic Party. Additionally, Butler’s experience as a partner at SCRB Strategies (now Bearstar Strategies) and her senior advisory role in Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign contribute to her political acumen.
Challenges and Considerations
Despite her impressive background, Butler’s potential Senate bid faces several challenges. Time is running out on the political calendar for her to enter the race, with California’s candidate filing deadline on December 8 and the primary scheduled for March 5. To maximize her campaign’s effectiveness, she needs to declare well before December, possibly aiming for the California Democratic Party’s formal endorsement at its mid-November convention. The party’s endorsement grants candidates a special section in county voter guides, essentially providing free advertising to voters.
Additionally, Butler’s resume might draw criticism from the left due to her association with corporations involved in California’s political economy. Her consultancy work for Uber during its campaign for Proposition 22 and for Airbnb, both contentious issues in the state, could become points of contention.
Furthermore, starting without a clear constituency of support, Butler faces a challenge compared to her Democratic opponents who are already somewhat familiar to voters. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, in particular, have strong fundraising records, which is crucial in a state with expensive campaign advertising.
Impact of Special Election
Feinstein’s passing and the subsequent vacancy also bring attention to the 2024 race’s special election component. A state law passed in 2021 mandates a special election for the remainder of the seat’s term, coinciding with the regular election for the next six-year term. Although candidates can raise double the maximum amount from individual donors due to this dual-election structure, the same major candidates are likely to file for both contests. Nevertheless, the concurrent elections could result in diverse outcomes in crowded and competitive races.
In conclusion, regardless of Laphonza Butler’s decision regarding the 2024 election, her appointment marks an important chapter in her political journey. At 44 years old, she has the potential for a long and impactful political career, whether in the Senate or elsewhere. The 2024 California election promises to be one of the most closely watched contests this cycle, particularly if two Democrats advance out of the primary.
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