Race for California’s Class I U.S. Senate seat begins to take shape

Twenty-nine candidates are running in the top-two primary for U.S. Senate in California on March 5, 2024. The primary will determine which two candidates will run in the state’s general election on Nov. 5, 2024.

Incumbent Laphonza Butler (D) announced she would not run for re-election on Oct. 19, 2023. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) appointed Butler to replace Dianne Feinstein (D), who died on Sept. 29, 2023. Butler was sworn in on Oct. 3 of that year. This will be the first open race for California’s Class I U.S. Senate seat since 1992.

The following candidates have received the most media attention: Barbara Lee (D), Katie Porter (D), Adam Schiff (D), and Steve Garvey (R). Lee, Porter, and Schiff are members of California’s congressional delegation. Garvey is a former professional baseball player. The Democratic candidates are campaigning on democracy reform, climate change, the economy, and healthcare. Garvey’s priorities are quality-of-life issues, public safety, and education. 

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Shira Stein and Joe Garofoli said the three Democratic candidates voted the same way 94% of the time over the past four and a half years in Congress. They differed most often on foreign policy, the military, and immigration. For example, “they had a rare moment of disunion over the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas. Schiff expressed unequivocal support for Israel while Lee called for a cease-fire and offered prayers for both Israelis and Palestinians killed. Porter stood out by taking an unusual position for a Democrat — attributing some of the blame to American inaction in Iran.”

The election primary is for the six-year term beginning on Jan. 3, 2025. Also on the primary ballot is a special top-two primary for the remainder of Feinstein’s term, which will last until Jan. 3, 2025. Lee, Porter, Schiff, and Garvey are running in both the special and regular primary elections. Paul Mitchell, a Democratic strategist and pollster, said, “In a crowded field of contenders, each with their own appeal, being on both ballots could potentially pose some risk. Even a small splitting of votes because of this ballot oddity could cause a candidate to make the runoff in the special election for the remainder term, and not make the runoff in the election for the full term.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Seema Mehta and Laura J. Nelson also noted that “Federal campaign rules prohibit donors from contributing more than $3,300 to a candidate in a primary election and $3,300 to a candidate in the general election. With a second election on the ballot, the maximum allowable donation will rise from $6,600 to $13,200.”

This is the second time in two years that four races will be held (two primaries and two generals) in California in one year for the same U.S. Senate seat. In 2022, Sen. Alex Padilla (D), who was appointed to fill Kamala Harris’ (D) Senate seat, ran for the remainder of Harris’ term, as well as for the new, six-year term.

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