California’s Crowded Senate Primary Race Is Set to Be Most Expensive in History

(Bloomberg) -- The race to snag a once-in-a-generation Senate seat from California is on track to be the most expensive congressional primary ever, pitting two of the House’s most prolific fundraisers against each other to represent the country’s wealthiest and most populous state.

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Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter have already declared they’re running for the seat in 2024, even before incumbent Dianne Feinstein, 89, has announced her plans. Representative Barbara Lee is privately telling colleagues that she’s planning to enter the race, and others, including Silicon Valley’s Representative Ro Khanna, have said they’re thinking about it.

The likelihood of a large pool of high-profile challengers with fundraising prowess that extends beyond California will push candidates to shore up record amounts of cash in the coming months.

California spans two of the most expensive media markets in the country — Los Angeles and San Francisco — and the early launches mean the race will be very long and very expensive, demanding even larger campaign war chests.

Candidates will likely need at least $40 million each to be competitive, according to a source familiar with the Schiff campaign’s thinking.

Incumbent advantage and strong Democratic leanings mean that turnover for a Senate seat from California can take decades. Feinstein, who faces intensifying questions about her competence, was first elected in 1992. California’s junior senator Alex Padilla, appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris, is only 49 years old.

California’s unusual primary system, which moves the top two vote getters into the general election — rather than one Republican and one Democrat — means that two Democrats are likely to advance.

The result is that the California Senate primary could be among the most expensive races ever despite the least significant consequences, ideologically speaking, because a Democrat will almost certainly be elected. Biden won the state with 63.5% of the vote.

Porter and Schiff, both from southern California, are seen as formidable challengers, largely because of their ability to convince donors to give. Porter raised $25.4 million in the 2022 midterm cycle, making her the second most prolific fundraiser in the House, just behind House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Schiff raised $24.4 million last cycle, coming in fourth place, just behind former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Adam and Katie’s fundraising bases overlap, so there will likely be a lot of people giving in both directions in the beginning,” Sarah Kate Levy, a California-based political fundraising consultant, said, adding that who labor groups ultimately back — as well as who has an edge on small-dollar donations — will be critical.

Schiff and Porter bring different fundraising styles to the race. With quippy videos from the House floor – often with props like white boards or posters – Porter’s found success attracting an audience on social media apps that draw younger users. Across TikTok and Instagram, she’s amassed more than 800,000 followers on multiple accounts.

On TikTok, her videos frequently go viral, getting viewed millions of times. That online fame has led to her ability to draw in small donors from across the country, raising $1.3 million from 34,024 on the day she announced she was running, according to her campaign.

Schiff, the lead Democrat in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, has close ties to two groups that Porter has yet to make inroads with: Hollywood, including past support from television producer Norman Lear and Sopranos producer David Chase, as well as the Jewish community in California and nationally, according to a person familiar with his campaign’s thinking.

Porter and Schiff’s demonstrated ability to raise massive sums is a key indicator of viability that could draw other major donors as the two compete for money. Schiff starts with the most cash on hand — more than $20 million, according to the most recent federal campaign finance filings from late November. Feinstein, should she run, had $9.9 million on hand. Porter had $7.7 million.

Lee, who had only $54,900 in her campaign account, will be at a significant disadvantage, should she decide to enter the race.

The total candidates have on hand now already far exceeds the entire amount spent in the 2016 Senate race, the last time there was an open seat following former Senator Barbara Boxer’s retirement. Harris faced off against longtime House member Loretta Sanchez in a contest that cost $18.3 million at the time, or $22.3 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Schiff’s “claim to fame is the Trump inquisitor,” California Democratic strategist Peter Ragonesaid said. “Porter is more of an economic populist in the mold of Elizabeth Warren.” Barbara Lee, should she get into the race, has virtually no national or statewide profile, he said.

Women’s groups, however, are adamant, that a woman win the seat.

“California has been represented by women in the Senate since 1992 and there is no reason to go back,” said Andrea Dew Steele, a San Francisco-based Democratic fundraiser, and member of Electing Women Alliance, which supports Democratic women in races nationwide.

The group is hosting fundraisers for Porter and will do the same for Lee, should she enter the race.

“The women’s fundraising network in California is powerful,” Steele said. “We are committed to making sure a qualified, Democratic woman holds that seat.”

--With assistance from Jarrell Dillard and Alex Barinka.

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