The death of California Sen. Dianne on Friday and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s selection of longtime political operative Laphonza Butler as her short-term replacement have thrust two critical questions to the forefront of the state’s political scene:
Will Butler run for a full term in the Senate in next year’s election? And if she does, how seriously will she shake up the race that is well underway?
The first question remains unanswered; Butler hasn’t said if she plans to run.
“Politics can wait,” Matt Wing, a spokesman for Butler, told The Times in a written statement.
“This week Laphonza is focused on respecting and honoring Sen. Feinstein’s legacy and getting ready to serve the people of California in the Senate.”
The second question had political experts divided as they digested the news of her appointment Monday. Whether Butler will serve 15 months and then step down, or enter the race herself, could upend the campaign strategies of the three prominent Democrats already running for Senate: Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank. Butler has deep ties to organizations that could help her mount a serious fundraising operation.
“I think Butler would be a very formidable candidate who’s capable of making it into the top two,” advancing from the primary to the general election, said Feinstein’s 2018 campaign manager Jeff Millman, citing her fundraising prowess.
But that’s if she plans to run.
“Most people believe that this race is too far along and that to run would be so violative of the democratic process,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran unsuccessfully for California governor in 2018.
“I don’t expect that she will,” he said. “I do think she’ll do a very good job filling the shoes of a trailblazer.”
Feinstein broke barriers as the first woman elected to represent California in the Senate, and Butler will be the first LGBTQ+ senator from the state.
This comes after Newsom said last month he’d like to see a caretaker in the role, only to backtrack later after criticism from progressives. Lee, who is Black, ripped into the governor, saying that choosing a Black woman for a short-term appointment is “insulting.” On Sunday, hours before Butler’s appointment was announced, a Newsom administration official told The Times that if his appointee “decides she wants to seek a full term in 2024, then she is free to do so.”
Newsom committed in 2021 to appointing a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat ever came open, an effort to placate frustration by Black leaders after he appointed Sen. Alex Padilla to replace then-Sen. Kamala Harris in the Senate after she was elected vice president. Harris’ departure left the 100-member Senate without a single Black female member.
After Butler’s expected inauguration by Harris on Tuesday, there would be four Black senators, a record for a single time in American history.
Despite trailing in the polls and lagging in fundraising, Lee has said her candidacy wasn’t just about positioning herself for an appointment in the event Feinstein left office early, and has been focused on raising enough money and garnering enough support to prevail in the March primary. Lee campaign focus groups and surveys done last month found that most California voters had little awareness about the Senate race and that Lee “will likely only need 27% of the vote to place in the top two,” and advance to the general election, according to a memo from her campaign.
“I am running very hard to win this race,” Lee said on CNN on Monday. “Of course, it would have been great because I did want to fill the vacancy…. But listen, we all have to just focus on what we’re doing.”
Calls in recent weeks from members of the Congressional Black Caucus for Newsom to appoint Lee to fill a potential vacancy attracted increased attention to her campaign. The question now is whether she gets a bounce in the polls and will have stronger fundraising numbers. At the end of June, Lee had about $1.4 million in cash on hand, according to federal campaign finance reports.
Both Porter and Schiff have raised far more than Lee. Schiff on Monday announced that he had $32 million in cash on hand after raising $6 million in the third quarter. Porter hasn’t revealed her latest fundraising numbers but had $10.3 million in her campaign account through June.
Lee, Porter and Schiff all applauded Newsom’s pick, with the Oakland representative saying she looked “forward to working closely with her to deliver for the Golden State” and Porter issuing a statement praising Butler for “her career standing up for women and working families.”
Political strategists and former elected officials said the fundraising prowess of Porter and Schiff gives them a substantial advantage in the March primary. Butler, they said, could put an operation together and has the chops to raise money quickly, but it would be a tall order.
“I don’t care who you are, or how attractive you are as a candidate, or as a politician, or whatever,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Garry South. “You cannot pull together a viable statewide campaign in a state like California in five months’ time, especially with the holidays in the middle.”
“There are more than 21 million registered voters in California,” South added. “Do 21,000 know who she is?”
Veteran political strategist Bill Carrick, a longtime advisor to Feinstein, said that although Schiff, Porter and Lee announced their candidacies months ago, it wouldn’t be too late for another candidate to enter the race.
None of the three leading Democratic candidates has held statewide office before, he said, and polling suggests that they all have relatively low levels of support.
“It’s not like anybody starts with a built-in base,” Carrick said. “If you and I were sitting in a focus group right now, I think we’d find that most people don’t know much about any of these people.”
Butler is “extremely intelligent,” Carrick said, and would bring a long and varied resume to the campaign trail, should she decide to run.
That includes more than a decade as the president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which Carrick called the “largest and most politically savvy” labor union in California, as well as her ties to the political fundraising world through Emilys List, which he said could help her quickly tap into a wide network of potential donors.
Emilys List is a powerhouse political organization that funnels millions of dollars each election cycle to help elect Democratic women who support access to abortion run for office.
“It gives you a large universe of women donors who respond in very efficient ways to fundraising needs,” Carrick said.
If Butler were to launch a Senate run, her campaign support system — financial or otherwise — would probably rely heavily on the organizations where she worked previously. The endorsements of Emilys List and SEIU 2015 will be coveted by the already declared candidates.
“Those three I’m sure have deep relationships with the very entities that she comes out of,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis — who has yet to endorse in the Senate race. “Obviously she’ll get a lot of attention in the short term. On the other hand, I can tell you how difficult it is to get well known in a state of 39 million people. It takes years and years.”
Whether she runs for a full term or not, it’s clear that Butler’s star is rising in California politics — and the coming months may not be the last time she holds or seeks elected office.
“Whether or not she chooses to exercise her right to file as a candidate in the next 60 days remains to be seen,” said a person connected to the California labor community who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, “but I don’t think this is the last time we will see her potentially put her name in the ring for elected office.”
Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.