Handicapping California’s 2024 Senate race, Adam Schiff is the early frontrunner

For much of the last few years, Ro Khanna was considered a lock to run for the U.S. Senate when Democrat Dianne Feinstein eventually succumbed to old age and opted to retire.

But now that Feinstein, the 30-year incumbent and former mayor of San Francisco, officially says she’ll leave the Senate after next year at age 90, Khanna says uh-uh.

The four-term incumbent and former presidential campaign co-chair for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders cited a private poll the other day when indicating he’ll stay out of next year’s Senate primary, now shaping up as an all-Democrat dogfight among Burbank Congressman Adam Schiff, Orange County Congresswoman Katie Porter and Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

The poll, he said, showed Schiff with a solid early lead among likely Democratic voters – the vast majority of those participating in this state’s elections. Schiff tallied 40 percent in that survey to 20 percent for both Porter and Lee, while Khanna trailed considerably behind. A subsequent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies found a tighter race between Schiff and Porter, but some questioned that survey’s methodology.

Right now, it appears that unless Republicans find an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like non-politician to bear their standard next year, California can figure the GOP will have no hope of picking up this longtime Democratic seat.

But which Democrat, and why?

First, there’s the question of why each of the three Democrats is running. Then it’s logical to wonder what happens when this field is winnowed down to two for the November 2024 runoff, where voter turnout should be high because the Senate race will share the ballot with the next presidential contest.

All three declared candidates have national bases. Schiff is probably the best known, having led two impeachment efforts against former President Donald Trump. That made him popular among Democrats nationwide.

Schiff, 62, with his longtime involvement in major issues, is a natural as a Senate candidate. But he’s a white male in a state that has exclusively elected women to the Senate for the last 31 years. And he voted to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Porter was a lock to run this year both because, with fellow Democrat Alex Padilla embedded solidly in the state’s other Senate seat, it may be a long time before there’s another opening and because after the 2021 redistricting, her congressional district became more difficult for a Democrat to win. She survived last year by only a hair.

The 49-year-old Porter, who wields a whiteboard and biting questions during congressional hearings, has her own national following.

Then there’s Lee, 76, best known for her almost solitary votes against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that cost thousands of American lives. Lee also symbolizes the belief that at least one California Senate seat should go to a Black woman, both because there are not now any female Black senators, and because some believe that because California elected Vice President Kamala Harris to the Senate in 2016, Black women are entitled to a seat despite making up less than 4 percent of the state’s populace.

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A traditional way to handicap Senate candidates is by their capacity to raise money. Both Schiff and Porter do well that way, Schiff having started this year with $20.8 million in his war chest and Porter with $7.4 million on hand after raising more than $25 million last year.

Those figures place Schiff and Porter among the top 10 congressional fund raisers, while Lee trails far behind with barely $50,000 banked at the end of 2022, after raising just over $2 million last year.

Then there’s charisma, of which Schiff has little and Porter and Lee lots, an advantage that cannot be accurately measured until serious polling begins early next year.

Anyone betting just now would likely expect a November 2024 runoff between Schiff and Porter, unless a yet-unknown and -undeclared Republican rises up soon to knock one of the Democrats out of the general election. Should Gov. Gavin Newsom opt to enter this race, it would change almost everything here overnight.

But that appears unlikely just now, as does a solid Republican run for this open seat.

Email Thomas Elias at

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