Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Sunday night appointment of Laphonza Butler to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat potentially upends what has largely been a three-way contest that began early this year among three of the state’s Democratic congressional representatives.
The selection also came with no preconditions that Butler not seek to keep the job when voters go to the polls next year to choose a senator to serve the Golden State for a full-term starting in January 2025.
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether Butler, president since 2021 of EMILY’s List, a Washington, D.C., political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights, would run to hold on to the appointed seat. She did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement on social media Monday, Butler said “I’m honored to accept Gov. Gavin Newsom’s nomination to be U.S. Senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation.”
But it was widely assumed she’d consider giving voters a chance to keep her in the job. Butler would have until 5 p.m. Dec. 8 to file paperwork to enter the March 5 primary race for the U.S. Senate seat, and should she do so, which many see as likely, she’d be a formidable contender.
“She certainly has deep policy experience, huge political experience, seems like now with this platform she will absolutely be at the front of the conversation for 2024,” said Thad Kousser, political science professor at the University of California-San Diego..
Feinstein’s death last Thursday night forced an appointment decision on Newsom that he’d hoped to avoid. Black leaders objected to his 2021 appointment of California’s other U.S. Senator, Alex Padilla, to replace Kamala Harris, the Senate’s only Black woman, when she became vice president. So Newsom shortly afterward pledged if he had to make another Senate appointment it would be a Black woman.
But that was before three of California’s leading Democratic House Reps. — Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland — began campaigning early this year to succeed Feinstein when her term expires in 2025. On Sept. 10, Newsom told NBC’s Meet the Press he’d appoint a Black woman as an “interim” caretaker who wouldn’t run for the seat to avoid getting “involved in the primary” election March 5.
But Lee, the only Black woman already in the race, criticized Newsom over the notion of a “participation trophy” appointment and several Black leaders and progressive groups urged the governor to give the appointment to Lee.
Lee said in a statement after the appointment that “I wish Laphonza well and look forward to working closely with her to deliver for the people of the Golden State.”
“I am singularly focused on winning my campaign,” Lee said. “No one should underestimate our unprecedented grassroots campaign, which is growing in momentum every day. Voters in this state deserve a representative who is going to cut taxes for the middle class, eradicate poverty, fight corporate greed, protect reproductive freedom, invest in affordable housing, and defend our democracy. That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”
Schiff and Porter haven’t yet commented on Butler’s appointment.
Butler currently lives in Maryland, but the governor’s office said she owns a home in California and will re-register to vote in the state before she is sworn in later this week.
The Secretary of State’s office couldn’t immediately say Monday how residency is determined to run for a U.S. Senate seat, but political experts didn’t think it would pose a problem for Butler. Information posted on the California Secretary of State’s office website indicated the qualifications of a candidate for a full term are to be at least 30 years of age, a U.S. citizen for nine years, and a resident of California on January 3, 2025, the date to be sworn into office if elected.
Dan Schnur, a political analyst who teaches at the University of Southern California and UC-Berkeley, said it’s not assured Butler will run.
“While Newsom very deliberately left the door open for her to run if she chose, it wouldn’t be surprising at all for her to decide to forgo the race because it’s only five months to the primary and that’s a very steep hill to climb even for a newly appointed incumbent,” Schnur said.
But either way, Schnur added, the appointment was politically brilliant for Newsom.
“Newsom had created a pretty difficult political box for himself but this is a move worthy of Houdini,” Schnur said. “Not only does he appoint a Black woman other than Barbara Lee and stays out of the Senate race, but Butler has such strong pro-choice and pro-labor and pro-LGBTQ credentials that it’s difficult to imagine Lee’s allies causing any more trouble for him.”
With the primary race already well underway, Butler’s entry would be politically awkward for many of the Democratic Party’s establishment who have publicly cast their support for the declared candidates. Schiff has been leading in polls and fundraising, followed by Porter and Lee, though many voters remain undecided.
Republicans aren’t considered competitive in the race, as Democrats outnumber them in voter registration two-to-one and none of the declared GOP contenders has significant stature or fundraising.
Nolan Higdon, who teaches communications and politics at California State University East Bay, said Butler’s entry may well lead to private discussions between Democratic party leaders and the leading candidates about coalescing around Butler.
“Is the establishment going to move behind Butler?” Higdon asked. “I imagine a lot of this will happen behind the scenes.”