Democrats are rushing in to replace California Sen. Dianne Feinstein — and so are the Super PACs.
The once-in-a-generation contest for a California Senate seat could unleash a tsunami of outside spending as independent expenditure committees with unlimited fundraising powers work to differentiate Democrats jostling in an open field. And that could lead to the kind of negative broadsides that candidates themselves could be reluctant to level.
Allies of Rep. Barbara Lee launched a Super PAC even before the Oakland congresswoman opened her Senate campaign. That committee is staffed with some of California’s most prominent political operatives — as with a rival PAC backing Rep. Adam Schiff — and supporters of Rep. Katie Porter are laying the foundation for a third. The dynamic could deepen intraparty strife as liberal donors fund advertising targeting more centrist Democrats, and vice versa, in what is likely to be one of the most expensive contests in California history.
“I do believe this race is going to be probably one of the most expensive Senate races ever,” said Ann Ravel, who chaired both the Federal Elections Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and “each Super PAC is going to want to assure that their candidate is the one who has enough money.”
Candidates and political operatives have spent months preparing for a Senate race under the presumption Feinstein’s retirement was imminent. That has intensified the competition for top political staffers.
“Schiff was very aggressive,” said an opposition researcher who asked to remain anonymous because they may be working in the race. “He’s trying to lock up all the talent.”
Among those running the pro-Schiff committee are partners at Bearstar Strategies, a blue-chip California consulting firm whose roster has included Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla — and, in 2018, Porter. The Orange County Democrat and the firm parted ways after the 2020 cycle, when Porter endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — her political mentor — over then-Bearstar client Kamala Harris.
“They are going to be very familiar with all her vulnerabilities, and that’s usually the job of a super PAC, is to negatively define an opponent,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican political consultant.
It is exorbitantly expensive to run a statewide race in California, where candidates must introduce themselves to millions of voters across several media markets. Independent expenditure committees can bolster those efforts by pulling in big-dollar donations
That could be especially critical for Lee as the East Bay Democrat races to make up a cash-on-hand deficit relative to Schiff and Porter, who are both prolific fundraisers with millions in the bank compared to the $54,000 Lee reported at the end of 2022.
“That is clearly the advantage they have,” said Nathan Barankin, who is overseeing the committee. “She has a long list of non-financial advantages they can never overcome, but for her purposes there’s a unique benefit to having a Super PAC.”
The consultants running Lee’s committee hint at where that money may come from. Several of them have worked for progressive prosecutor candidates in California, who benefit from a network of deep-pocketed criminal justice reform supporters. Barankin was chief of staff to Harris, whom Lee supported in the 2020 presidential race.
“I do think there is substantial overlap between many of the people who have been longtime supporters of the vice president over a number of years with those who will be supportive of Barbara Lee, not just in California but around the country,” Barankin said.
While Porter, like Warren, has focused on the corrupting influence of money in politics, she does not intend to decline outside support as Warren sought to do. Warren was caught in a bind in 2020 when she initially pledged to reject PAC support but ultimately received it. The Massachusetts senator argued it would make little sense to operate at a disadvantage to other Democrats who benefited from ubiquitous outside spending.
“You can’t control outside money, which was the thing with Elizabeth Warren,” said Karin Johanson, who helped run a pro-Warren Super PAC in 2020, but “I don’t think anyone’s going to spend money on Katie Porter that Katie Porter doesn’t agree with.”
Porter already navigated a barrage of outside spending in fiercely contested House races that saw groups spend well over $10 million for or against her, illustrating how that kind of cash has become indispensable in tough contests. That network could activate again on Porter’s behalf, although donors who helped her flip and defend a frontline House seat against Republicans will not necessarily support her against fellow Democrats. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) endorsement of Schiff could give him access to her formidable fundraising network.
The challenge for Democrats in resolutely blue California is how to stand out to voters without alienating them by assailing other Democrats. That’s where Super PACs could be instrumental.
“It’s unlikely the candidate campaigns are going to go negative, but it’s possible the IE’s will feel freer to do things that more specifically contrast candidates,” said Ludovic Blain, who runs the progressive California Donor Table.
None of that will alter the balance of power in a narrowly divided Senate. But funders are keenly interested in shaping who represents America’s most populous state — particularly given the possibility that Feinstein’s successor, like Feinstein, serves for decades.
“Dianne Feinstein’s presence as the senator from California for 30 years was significant in the Senate,” Ravel said, “and so who gets elected to that position is something that a lot of outside interests throughout the country are going to be concerned about.”