Dianne Feinstein’s Death Leaves Critical Senate Vacancy Amid Contentious Race To Replace Her

Originally published by The 19th

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to appoint an interim senator to fill the vacancy created by the death Thursday of longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein— but he has said he would not consider any of the high-profile Democrats who for months have been vying to replace her.

Newsom in a statement early Friday praised Feinstein as a “powerful, effective leader” but did not comment on the potential timeline of her replacement. The California governor will face pressure to quickly fill Democrats’ bench amid a spending fight and looming government shutdown.

Feinstein’s death brings Democrats’ majority in the Senate to 50 votes next to Republicans’ 49 votes. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is facing calls to resign, raising the specter of that margin shrinking further.

Newsom promised in 2021 that he would name a Black woman should Feinstein vacate her seat. That came after he faced blowback when he appointed Alex Padilla, who is Latino, to fill the seat left vacant by Vice President Kamala Harris, who had been the only Black woman in the Senate.

The Senate currently has no Black women, and only two Black women have ever served in the body.

Feinstein had already announced she would not seek reelection, sparking a crowded race to replace her. In a September 10 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Newsom said he would not wade into the contentious 2024 primary, though he signaled he would fulfill his promise to appoint a Black woman.

The announcement was seen as a snub to Rep. Barbara Lee, a Black woman who represents a district anchored in Oakland,  who is one of three Democratic House members vying to replace Feinstein.

“I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks. The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election,” Lee said on X, the social platform known as Twitter.

Lee has trailed fellow Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter in polling and fundraising.

“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

With Feinstein’s death, Newsom is expected to make an interim appointment and schedule a special primary and election for someone to serve the rest of Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025. The special election would be quickly followed by a regular primary and regular election for the seat.

Higher Heights for America, an influential political group dedicated to electing Black women to political office, urged Newsom in a statement to fulfill his promise by appointing Lee to the vacancy. The group’s president and founder, Glynda C. Carr, said in a statement Friday that Lee is “the best person for the job.”

“For the future of California, our country, Black and Brown women, and the communities we care about the most, I strongly urge Governor Newsom to appoint Rep. Lee to fill Senator Feinstein’s seat,” Carr said. “She has what it takes to get to work on day one and will ensure we continue to build beyond this moment in our nation’s history and serve as a powerful advocate for the people of California.”

Feinstein, a trailblazing lawmaker, became the first woman elected to the Senate from California in 1992 and rose in the ranks of the upper chamber over the years. Feinstein was involved in high-profile fights with the Obama administration while serving as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair and championed gun safety legislation.

“She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace. She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation,” Newsom said in a statement celebrating Feinstein’s life and political career. He described her as a lifelong mentor and a role model to his daughters.

Porter said in a statement that Feinstein was a “trailblazer for women in California politics,” and praised her leadership on gun violence prevention and anti-torture.  “I wish her loved ones strength during this difficult time,” Porter said.

Lee said California had lost “a giant” with the death of Feinstein. “Senator Feinstein broke glass ceilings for women in politics and fought fearlessly for safer communities free of gun violence. My deepest condolences go out to her family and loved ones,” Lee said in a statement.

Schiff described Feinstein as “a real friend and mentor.”

“Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of the finest legislators we have ever seen. Her legacy is unmatched,” he said in a statement.

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