WASHINGTON — Within one day of Rep. Adam Schiff launching his run for Senate, Laura Friedman unveiled her own full-fledged campaign to take his current job — complete with a slick website, a fresh logo and the endorsement of California’s lieutenant governor.
It was the first time in more than 20 years that the congressional district she resides in was up for grabs, and the Democratic state Assemblywoman from Glendale was ready.
So was her competition. Schiff’s announcement last week set off a political stampede from the Hollywood Bowl to the Rose Bowl, with at least five Democrats jumping in the race to succeed him and more laying the groundwork to join.
The 2024 Senate race has barely begun, but already it has sent shockwaves through Schiff’s Los Angeles district, and in Orange County, home of his Democratic rival, Rep. Katie Porter. Months of private discussions to gauge support and size up potential rivals are now bursting into public view.
And in the Bay Area, political observers are busily gaming out the possible successors to Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee, who has signaled her intentions to run for Senate.
“It’s like reverse Jenga or something,” said Dan Newman, a Democratic operative based in San Francisco. “Once something opens up, there’s this cascading effect of open seats, down to city council and dog catcher, races that are going to end up with open seats thanks to a potential U.S. Senate retirement that hasn’t even actually officially happened.”
Sen. Diane Feinstein’s demurral on her reelection plans has loomed awkwardly over the race to succeed her. Porter and Schiff launched their bids proclaiming respect for the 89-year-old senator and her right to announce her intentions on her own timeline.
Although a recent bare-bones fundraising report shows little evidence of a reelection campaign, Feinstein has repeatedly said her official decision would not come until the spring, at the earliest. But with the primary scheduled for March 2024, candidates — for the Senate and prime House seats that may become vacant — have been antsy to kickoff their campaigns.
“There’s a limited window here for candidates to be able to raise money, to be able to run a competitive primary campaign,” said Rob Pyers, research director for California Target Book, a nonpartisan political almanac. “So time is really of the essence here.”
The lure is especially strong in deep-blue House districts such as Schiff’s and Lee’s, where incumbents are able to build seniority and clout without term limits. Schiff has held his Burbank-centered seat since 2001; Lee has represented Oakland and surrounding cities since 1998.
“For seats like this, it’s pretty much a lifetime appointment,” Pyers said. “You’re pretty much guaranteed to win reelection for the foreseeable future, barring some out of left field primary challenge catches fire.”
Often, the best opportunity for a fresh face in the district is when a longtime federal lawmaker voluntarily moves on to seek higher office or retire. In 2014, Rep. Henry Waxman announced he would not seek reelection, leaving his West Los Angeles seat open for the first time in 40 years. Sixteen candidates, including nine Democrats, entered the field to succeed him — a swarm that one political consultant dubbed “Waxmania!”
“So few Democratic seats become open that individuals will seize the moment to get into a position that is historic — being a member of Congress is a big deal and can be very impactful,” said Wendy Greuel, former Los Angeles city controller and councilwoman. “For anyone who is interested in politics and making a difference, you are going to jump at the chance to do that.”
Greuel, who had unsuccessfully run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2013, launched her House campaign just hours after Waxman revealed his retirement plans. She came in third in the primary, narrowly trailing then-state Sen. Ted Lieu, who handily won the seat later that year.
Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, still cringes at the memory of that brutal intraparty fight nine years ago. In the months leading up to Schiff’s announcement, Gonzalez said he urged potential candidates to consider alternative offices to seek instead of jumping into the crowded congressional fight.
“I’ve had conversations over the last couple of months (where) it’s been like, ‘if this doesn’t pan out, there’s this option as well.’ That way we don’t have a lot of good Democrats running against each other, attacking each other,” Gonzalez said.
“Those conversations have been had,” he said. “At this point, it’s up to the individual to make up their mind.”
Schiff’s decision to run for the Senate hardly caught local Democrats off-guard. There has been speculation for years that he was interested in higher office — state attorney general, perhaps, or even the presidency — and he has been cultivating relationships with party leaders and donors for a while.
When he began privately making calls last winter, signaling his imminent Senate race, ambitious Democrats in his district made calls of their own.
Carmenita Helligar, a Burbank business owner and community activist, started hearing inquiries from local politicians wondering whom she might back if Schiff was no longer her representative.
“They always led with ‘if he got another position, if he ever moved on ...’ None of that made sense to me until now,” said Helligar, who is backing state Sen. Anthony Portantino, another early entrant in the race to succeed Schiff.
These “what if” conversations were whirring among influential donors and interest groups, as hopefuls try to lock up early endorsements and pledges for campaign contributions.
“Candidates will say they’re testing the waters, but what they’re often really saying is, ‘I’m in and I want your support,’” said Mike Young, political director for the California Environmental Voters, a climate advocacy group. “Their hope is that groups are willing to endorse their campaigns and give them an early boost.”
Young said he’d heard from multiple potential contenders for Schiff’s seat in the weeks leading up to his announcement, as well as those considering Friedman’s state Assembly seat, which she would vacate to run for Congress.
Portantino, who has represented the area for six years in the Assembly before winning a state Senate seat in 2016, said that as speculation grew louder about Schiff’s plans, he began fielding questions from constituents about whether he’d run.
“That makes you feel good, when people read the newspaper and say, ‘Oh, our great congressman might be leaving. Are you interested?’” he said. “Obviously I called Adam and made sure I didn’t do anything impolitic with him. I made sure I was respectful to Mr. Schiff, which is what you’re supposed to do. And then I started making phone calls to folks.”
He said he had the backing of more than 100 community leaders before he launched his campaign this week, three days after Schiff’s Senate announcement.
The field of candidates so far includes Friedman; Portantino; Nick Melvoin, a Los Angeles Unified School District board member; and G. “Maebe A. Girl” Pudlo, a trans activist who ran against Schiff last year. Former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer jumped in Thursday, touting the endorsement of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne and “Boy Meets World” star Ben Savage may also join the race, among others.
Democrats are already honing their pitch on what will set them apart on a ballot full of fellow Democrats. Melvoin, who is 37, believes his relative youthfulness matches voters’ “desire for new blood and new vision.”
“Part of my motivation for running is that we’re witnessing a generational shift in leadership — Speaker Pelosi stepping down (and) the new Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries,” he said.
The race between Democrats to succeed Porter also took shape quickly, with state Sen. Dave Min squaring off against former Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda. But unlike in Schiff’s district, there has not been a deluge of other Democrats joining the fray.
“Porter’s district is newly competitive with the changing voter trends, (but) it’s not as if there’s a long list of Democratic legislators who have been waiting to run for that seat,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran Democratic consultant.
That Orange County district, which includes the northern coastal cities and Irvine, is solidly purple; Porter won by less than three percentage points against Republican challenger Scott Baugh last year.
Baugh will also seek the seat in 2024, setting up a pitched partisan battle that could be pivotal for control of the House.
Another prized safe Democratic seat could open up if Lee makes her Senate candidacy official, and there has been speculation about several high-profile Democratic politicians, including Assemblymembers Mia Bonta and Buffy Wicks, as well as former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
“In the Bay Area, there’s a wealth of Democratic elected officials and any opening at any level attracts multiple candidates,” Kapolczynski said. “And Democrat-on-Democrat runoffs (in that region) have been some of the most expensive races in the state.”
But the politicking has been far more muted than in Southern California, while contenders wait for word of Lee’s plans.
“I haven’t heard of anyone saying anything about Barbara Lee’s seat. I think they’re waiting until she actually commits” to the Senate run, said Linda Walogen, a board member with the Democrats of Rossmoor, an influential Walnut Creek Democratic club that has already hosted a Porter campaign stop and will see Schiff later this month.
Lee is not yet scheduled to speak, but Walogen did receive a text message from her campaign on Monday, saying that she was considering running for the Senate and asking for a monthly pledge.
(Staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.)