The waiting and seeing is over. The contest to replace Senator Dianne Feinstein is in full swing, even though her plans remain uncertain.
Rep. Katie Porter declared her candidacy last week and fellow Rep. Barbara Lee indicated a day later that she intended to walk. Rep. Adam B. Schiff is expected to follow soon, with more entries expected after that; in California, an open U.S. Senate is as rare as a Dodgers World Series win.
But no matter how big the field turns out to be, the race is likely to decrease to some degree.
The candidates that have emerged differ in race and gender. Others who jump in may be from different ethnic backgrounds. But each of the leading contenders will almost certainly have two major things in common: their affiliation with the Democratic Party and a shared set of fundamental political beliefs.
It’s not, for instance, that “pro-life” Democrats are pitted against “pro-choice” Democrats, or that tree-hugging environmentalists face “drill, baby, drill” friends of the oil industry.
“In this primary, you have three or four or five Democrats who all pass the test of fighting for democratic policies and sharing democratic values,” said Rose Kapolczynski, who led Barbara Boxer’s successful 1992 senate campaign and subsequent re-election efforts. . “How do you distinguish yourself from your fellow candidates?”
The answer is to blow up minor differences into airship-sized differences, create disagreements, and chase rivals on traits like behavior, character, and temperament.
“It gets personal,” predicted Democratic strategist Lisa Tucker, “because there aren’t many other places to go.”
Strange things can happen when a race pits candidates from the same party and political ideology against each other.
The last time California had a seriously competitive contest in the U.S. Senate was in 1992, when Boxer ran against fellow Democrats Mel Levine and Leo McCarthy. It was costly and hard negative and offers a taste of what is likely to come in the race to succeed Feinstein.
McCarthy attacked Boxer’s ethics and personal finances in connection with the House banking scandal, in which members of Congress were allowed to wire their accounts without penalty. A TV ad showed Boxer’s picture – boom! – bounce across the screen. (Like bounced checks, get it?)
Levine turned on rivals with a scathing attack on crime, echoing Republican claims about the Democratic tendency to “throw money” at social programs and spend too much time on “root causes” — something that came from a member with a good reputation from Los Angeles’ liberal Westside establishment.
Feinstein has yet to say if she will run again. But now that the toll age has been reached and there is only a pittance in the 89-year-old incumbent’s campaign bill, it seems highly unlikely she will seek re-election for a sixth time.
There will undoubtedly be Republicans and those from other parties in the Senate race, and that would be a good thing. But the most likely outcome, given registration and voter inclination, is that the Democrats come out of the top two primaries in March 2024 and face each other in November.
The frontrunners, starting out, appear to be Schiff and Porter, formidable fundraisers popular among Democratic activists. Burbank’s congressman for his role in the investigation and impeachment of President Trump, and Irvine’s congressman for her whiteboarding of corporate felons and social media savvy.
The most notable differences between the two are stylistically: Schiff’s down-to-earth, buttoned-up mien and Porter’s assertive, elbow-jerk approach.
It is those kinds of differences, not policy or debate over issues, that will most likely decide the race.
If you like uplifting and upbeat politics, with lots of sunshine and sweet harmony, then the competition to become California’s next US Senator is sure to be disappointing. (Again, if you feel this way, you probably left a long time ago for a deserted island with no internet connection.)
As Kapolczynski pointed out, contests between candidates from the same party tend to be personal and negative.
“The issue differences are small and voters are cynical about politicians at first,” she said. “And so if you can undermine their perception of a candidate’s character, or if you can trust them, that can turn people away and vote for the other choice.
“Sometimes,” said Kapolczynski, “the only way to win is to make your opponent a less attractive alternative.”
It can be daunting to think about months of hostile election campaigns, and it’s not something they celebrate in high school civics. But that is the reality of contemporary politics.
If you want friendliness and cheerfulness, there’s always Disneyland.