California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is faced with a difficult decision over who will fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) seat after her passing Friday at age 90.
Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in the Senate, died after three decades in the upper chamber. The pressure is now on Newsom to appoint a replacement to temporarily serve as senator for the Golden State until voters elect their next choice in 2024.
Newsom has said he will pick a Black woman to fill the seat, though he has also signaled he wants to stay above the fray in next year’s Senate race — drawing rebukes from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the declared candidates, in the process.
“He has a big political calculation to make,” California-based Democratic strategist Kate Maeder said of Newsom’s “huge task at hand” in picking a replacement to follow Feinstein’s “titan” legacy representing her state.
“Choosing her replacement is no easy task, and I think generally people understand how challenging this decision is for him, both politically and personally,” Maeder said of Newsom.
Feinstein’s absence now puts Democrats down one member in the upper chamber they hold by a slim margin, adding urgency for Newsom to quickly select a temporary successor. It also draws attention to an already intense battle for her seat.
California Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter launched bids for Feinstein’s seat before the senator announced in February she would not seek reelection. Lee announced her run shortly after, becoming the third candidate to jump into the competitive race.
Newsom has said he won’t appoint any of the candidates currently running in the primary, instead appointing someone to serve essentially as a caretaker of the seat until the next election.
“Interim appointment. I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” earlier this month.
Pressed on whether he’d appoint anybody who has already filed for the race, the governor said, “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off” and that he doesn’t “want to tip the balance” of the upcoming primary.
Newsom made no mention of any appointment plans in his statement on Feinstein’s passing on Friday.
In March, Newsom pledged to appoint a Black woman as Feinstein’s replacement if she retired from her role. But that pledge on top of his decision not to draw from the pool of current primary candidates has “troubled” Lee, who is Black.
“I am troubled by the governor’s remarks,” Lee said this month. “The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election.”
Who Newsom will pick is “a big question mark” at this point, said Steven Maviglio, a Sacramento-based Democratic strategist. “There’s been a lot of speculation with a lot of names,” he said, but no clear favorite. Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell are among the names some are floating.
“There’s great Black women serving in office … but do any of these women want to be a caretaker?” Maviglio said.
Though the front-runner isn’t clear, strategists say Newsom’s likely looking for someone who can give the Democrats another solid blue vote for the next year and a half until the 2024 election.
Newsom has dismissed the idea that he could be a possible 2024 presidential contender, making the rounds instead as an outspoken supporter of Biden and Harris running for reelection. Some consider him a possible White House hopeful in 2028 or beyond.
“Everything that the governor does is through the prism of how it’s going to reflect on him and his future ambitions, and I think this is no different,” Maviglio said of the impending appointment choice.
Given the timing of the Senate seat vacancy, he’ll likely have to move more quickly for the Feinstein seat appointment than he had to as he picked Padilla to replace Harris, said Democratic strategist David Thomas — though exactly when he would need to make the appointment isn’t clear.
The timing also means that a special election for who will serve out the remainder of Feinstein’s unexpired term — after Newsom makes an interim appointment — will likely be grouped in with next year’s primary and general elections, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The California secretary of state’s office was still figuring out what a timeline for an appointment or special election would look like on Friday, Politico reported.
“I’m sure he views this as an opportunity again not just to appoint somebody to represent California,” Thomas said of Newsom. “But also to make another historic choice.”