The US Senate race begins the games of musical chairs

in summary

Three members of California’s congressional delegation are running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Dianne Feinstein, sparking political battles for their congressional seats.

Remember the game of musical chairs?

A group of chairs is assembled and the players – one more than the number of chairs – march around them while music plays. When the music stops, the players scramble to sit on the chairs and the player who can’t find one is out of the game. One chair is removed and play continues until there is only one chair and one winner.

It is a fun game when played by children. It can be downright violent, basically fighting, when adults play, especially after they’ve been drinking.

A multi-level political version of the game is emerging in California as at least three members of the state’s congressional delegation begin campaigns in 2024 for Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat, based on the likely accurate assumption that she will retired after holding it for three decades.

Two Southern California Democrats, Katie Porter of Orange County and Adam Schiff of Los Angeles, have announced, and Barbara Lee of Oakland has not yet made it official but has told supporters she plans to run.

Other aspiring politicians may join the field after Feinstein, 89, announced as expected she will retire. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra are among the less likely possibilities, as is Gov. Gavin Newsom.

However, Kounalakis, Bonta and Becerra are also potential candidates for governor in 2026, when Newsom will be forced out by term limits — assuming he hasn’t moved on to another office by then.

The dynamics of the three-way Democratic Senate race are complex, involving ideology, gender, geography, congressional record, age and, of course, money. Millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions, are needed for a credible senatorial campaign in California, and it’s currently uncertain which of the three is the presumptive frontrunner.

Having at least three members of Congress running for the Senate means the outcome will be career-ending for at least two of them.

Meanwhile, the prospect of three congressional vacancies is sparking battles of its own, especially among state lawmakers. Democrats will keep Schiff and Lee’s districts, but Porter narrowly won re-election in his Orange County district last year, so Republicans have a rare opportunity to fill their thin ranks in Congress.

Porter has endorsed Democratic Sen. Dave Min to succeed her in Congress, but two other Democrats have also announced: Dom Jones, a contestant on the reality TV show Amazing Race, and former congressman Harley Ruda. Scott Baugh, a former Republican lawmaker who narrowly defeated Porter last year, will make another attempt at the seat in a district rated as a toss-up because of his voter registration (D-35.6%, R-33.9%) and past voting record.

Schiff’s announcement also generated a wave of potential successors, including Rep. Laura Friedman, fired state Sen. Anthony Portantino, former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles School Board member Nick Melvoin and actor Ben Savage.

The third level of political music games involves those who will succeed the state legislators who will be running for Congress next year.

When state Sen. Dave Minn declared for Congress, it was a relief to another Democratic senator, Josh Newman, because redistricting after the 2020 census put them both in a new Senate district. They may not face each other next year, but Newman won’t have an unchallenged re-election bid as former Republican Rep. Steve Choi, who lost his seat in 2022 due to redistricting changes, says he will seek the Senate seat .

The music is playing, so let the games begin.

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