California is a state that draws the attention of the nation for various reasons, and an election year is a particularly exciting one for the Golden State. As one of the largest states in the country, California provides significant fodder for the news cycle, and this year is a particularly notable one.

Feinstein’s Seat Up For Grabs

The reason behind this particularly exciting election season is due to one woman. Dianne Feinstein, one of the federal senators for California and the representative who held the office for more than thirty years, passed away in September of 2023, leaving her Senate seat open for the taking.

Source: Wikimedia/The United States Senate – Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein

This is a notable development in a heavily divided Congress, especially after the shakeup that the Senate saw in the election cycles of both 2020 and 2022. Democrats took back the house in a narrow majority for the first time in nearly a decade in 2020, with two special elections in Georgia granting them the seats that they needed to take power.

All Eyes on the Senate

Since these special elections, all eyes have been on the Senate as multiple election seasons have come and gone. In 2022, the Democrats not only managed to hold onto their seat of power in the Senate, but the actually gained a seat, bringing their majority to 51, rather than the requisite 50 for the majority.

Source: Wikimedia/Senate Democrats

Even before Dianne Feinstein’s unfortunate passing, 2024 was shaping up to be a challenging year for the Democrats in their quest to hold onto Senate power. Many of the seats that are up for reelection this year in the Senate are in safe Republican states, and several Democrats have announced their retirement at the end of the this term, leaving their seats up for grabs.

Other Democrats Stepping Down

Two Democrats that have announced their retirement are Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Machin of West Virginia. Both are independents who have caucused with the Democratic party since they were reelected, and while Sinema’s seat looks like it may go to another Democrat, Manchin’s seat is looking safe for a Republican to take hold.

Source: Wikimedia/Kyrsten Sinema

These facts have made unexpected events like Dianne Feinstein’s death a significant concern for Democrats. Holding onto power in the Senate has become an important point for the mainstream Democratic party, given the scope of legislation that was able to be passed by Democrats and President Biden during his first term in office.

Multiple Nominees for the Empty Seat

Because of the significance surrounding power in the Senate and the uncertainty regarding who will win the White House in 2024, eyes have understandably been on the race to fill Feinstein’s seat in California. Multiple Democrats and Republicans have thrown their hat into the ring for the position, with some notable names coming out ahead of others.

Source: Wikimedia/United States Congress, Office of Terri Sewell

One notable candidate for the position was progressive Representative Barbara Lee, who’s served more than a quarter of a century as a representative for California in the United States House of Representatives. She announced that she would be stepping down from her position to make a bid for the open Senate seat in 2023.

Barbara Lee: A California Institution

Lee is a 77-year-old Democrat from Northern California who has, since first being elected to the 12th District seat of California, faced minimal opposition during reelection campaigns in her district. Her popularity among her constituents was such that in her reelection cycles, she often garnered more than 80% of the vote.

Source: Wikimedia/Barbara Lee

In the House, she quickly rose through the ranks of power to become the highest-ranking Black woman in the Democratic leadership. She’s been considered a longtime hero of the American peace movement due to her sole “no” vote on the resolution that authorized former President George W. Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force” when retaliating against the September 11 terror attacks.

The Ideal Candidate

Lee’s popularity in her district as well as her positive reputation on the national stage made her an ideal candidate to run for the open senate seat left by Dianne Feinstein’s passing. Her Senate run received significant backing from several powerful leftist groups, including the California Working Families Party and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.

Source: Wikimedia/Barbara Lee

Lee’s district is largely considered to be one of the most progressive in the country, meaning that a win from Lee would have given the progressive Democratic party a significant voice in a deeply divided senate. In a world where strong opinions make waves, Lee’s voice could have been an important note.

Unfortunately, Not Ideal Enough

Unfortunately for Lee, in the wake of the Super Tuesday election results, she simply didn’t have the political power to make it to the general election. Despite her popularity in her district and the positivity of her reputation on the national stage, Lee ended up coming fourth in the race for the open senate seat.

Source: Wikimedia/Library of Congress Life

California’s primary laws are unique, in that all individuals running for a seat are on the same ballot. There are no Republican or Democratic primaries, meaning that the top two individuals who win the largest percentage of the vote are the ones that proceed to the general election. This system means that, at times, two Democrats or two Republicans could theoretically be running against each other.

Lee Fell Short on Funding, and Backing

Unfortunately for Lee, she didn’t have the funding or the backing to make it to one of those top two coveted general spots. In part, this is likely due to the popularity of the candidates that did win the top two seats, Representative Adam Schiff and Representative Katie Porter.

Source: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore

Both Schiff and Porter are big name Democrats on the national stage, with both the platform and the funding to go along with that kind of popularity. Schiff has been considered the popular pick for Feinstein’s seat ever since the former senator passed away, with Katie Porter a close second alternative.

Always a Long Shot

Going against such large platforms and reputations means that Barbara Lee’s campaign was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Unfortunately for the representative, the factors that made her so popular in her district are the same factors that made her bid for the Senate such a steep challenge.

Source: Wikimedia/Barbara Lee

Because while it is true that Lee was popular among her constituents, the fact of her platform and the fact that she represents one of the most liberal districts in the country means that her values, unfortunately, don’t always extend beyond those whose support she’s cultivated over the last thirty-odd years.

Very Principled, With a Narrow Base

“[Lee] is a very principled person, but her base of support is narrow,” said Jack Citrin, professor of the graduate school political science department at UC, Berkeley. “The narrowness of her base…made it impossible for her to win.”

Source: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore

Lee, to her credit, knew that the race was over before it had been officially called. In the Super Tuesday election, Lee stepped down and conceded her position hours before the race had been formally called. She did so when the results showed her in fourth place, with little chance the results changing.

A Republican and Democratic Match

The top two spots of the night ended up going to Representative Adam Schiff, Lee’s fellow Democrat who took the top spot when his race was called around 11:30 PM. The second position went to Republican Steve Garvey, a former first baseman for the LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

Source: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore

This matchup sets up the Senate for a hotly contested race in the general this November. The significance of the seat cannot be understated on the national stage, and the uncertainty of whether the long-held Democratic seat will end up going to a Republican will make for a strong campaign showing for both candidates.

A Statement from Lee

As far as Lee, she released a statement addressing her disappointment with the results. Before the polls closed, she joined her volunteers at their downtown campaign office to call voters who could vote for her, and before she left the office she discussed the challenges that came with running in the Senate race.

Source: Wikimedia/Jim Ratliff from Oakland

“You could see the disparity in the money. The establishment money doesn’t go to a Black progressive woman,” she said. She then stated that she was going to be heading back to Washington D.C. to get some work done in the wake of her defeat, intent on using the rest of her house term to make a difference.

Future Plans?

When asked what her future plans were, Representative Lee didn’t have an answer. Having given up her seat in the House in order to run for the Senate seat, it would be understandable if she chose to step away from politics altogether and enjoy her retirement.

Source: Wikimedia/Ron Przysucha

People with strong morals and principles like Lee, though, often don’t take the easy or obvious way out. It’s likely that America has not heard the last of Barbara Lee, even after she takes her leave of Congress. Whether she’ll continue to work in politics remains to be seen, but the woman is, and will continue to be, a force to be reckoned with.