Did Gavin Newsom dig himself out of a political hole Sunday when he announced that he had named veteran labor leader and political operative Laphonza Butler to succeed the late Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate?
Or did he dig himself into a new hole by not extracting a promise from Butler that she would not seek a full six-year Senate term next year?
Were she to run for a full term, it would completely change the dynamics of what has been a three-way duel for the Senate seat. Congressional members Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee have been skirmishing for months, following Feinstein’s announcement that she would not be seeking another term in 2024.
Two-plus years ago, after Newsom appointed Alex Padilla, then secretary of state, to fill out the remainder of Kamala Harris’ Senate term after her election as vice president, Newsom came under fire for not appointing another Black woman.
Pressed in a national television interview about whether he would appoint a Black woman to a future Senate vacancy, Newsom replied, “I have multiple names in mind. We have multiple names in mind – and the answer is yes.”
As Feinstein’s health deteriorated, the issue arose again and in early September, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Newsom said that he would honor his pledge but only as an “interim appointment.”
“Yes. Interim appointment,” Newsom told interviewer Chuck Todd. “I don’t want to get involved in the primary. 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.”
That statement appeared to declare that his appointee would not run for a full term, and Lee, a Black woman, called it “insulting.”
“I am troubled by the governor’s remarks,” Lee said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “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.”
The hypothetical became real when Feinstein died 18 days later, and three days after her death, Newsom announced his selection of Butler. On Monday, Newsom said he chose Butler with “no constraints, no expectations” about her running for a full-term in the 2024 election.”
Were she to run, it would insert a completely new — and powerful — player into the contest, and thus violate Newsom’s assertion just weeks ago that he didn’t want to “tip the balance” of the Senate contest.
Butler heads EMILY’s List, which helps women win political office, and everything hinges on her intentions after she is sworn in later this week.
Even if Butler intends only to serve the remaining 15 months of Feinstein’s term, she must win voter approval next year. In fact, that’s how Feinstein first gained her Senate seat in 1992, defeating Republican John Seymour, whom Gov. Pete Wilson had chosen as his successor in the Senate.
Were Butler to seek a full term, the other Senate hopefuls might be forced to also run against her for the rest of Feinstein’s term, which could be extremely confusing for voters.
California’ top-two system would add even more complexity to a head-spinning scenario. As it stands, it’s likely that two of the three Democrats running for the Senate would finish 1-2 in the March primary and face each other in November.
Were Butler to run, four Democrats would be seeking voter approval and splitting the Democratic vote four ways might allow a Republican to sneak into the November runoff.
Let the fun begin.
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