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From the Center

It was clear during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary that the hearts of party activists yearned for a liberal nominee like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but the sheer necessity of preventing Donald Trump’s re-election brought them to the practical option of Joe Biden. Now that their better-than-expected showing in last year’s midterm elections has made it almost certain that Biden will not face a primary challenge in 2024, the battle for the national party’s ideological soul seems to have been postponed.

But here in deep-blue California, a battle to define the party’s brand of progressivism is already shaping up as the field for next year’s U.S. Senate race comes together. Senator Dianne Feinstein is one of Congress’ last relics of the Clinton-era pragmatic Democrats who defined the party’s agenda in the 1990’s. But the campaign to replace her will almost certainly be dominated by left-leaning voices. The likelihood of a credible Republican candidate running is close to zero, and the possibility of a moderate Democrat who will follow in Feinstein’s political path is also extremely slim. 

Although Feinstein has not officially announced her plans yet, the announcement last week of no fewer than three prospective candidates has put the choice that California voters will face in stark relief. Their decision will end up relying much more on the candidates’ biographies, identities and the type of progressivism they represent than on significant policy differences between them. 

The first candidate to announce was Representative Katie Porter, who appears to have ruffled Feinstein’s political feathers by neither waiting for Feinstein to publicly declare her own intentions or talking to the longtime party icon in advance of her announcement. But Porter also entered the race with an immediate endorsement from Warren, her former professor and longtime ally, who represents the anti-corporate ideology that has shaped contemporary progressive economic thinking. 

Immediately after Porter’s announcement, Representative Barbara Lee made it known that she was considering the race as well. Best known for being the only House member to vote against the declaration of war against Afghanistan in 2001, Lee also embodies an older-school liberalism that has established her as a leader in the Black Congressional Caucus and on a range of racial and social justice issues as well.

If Porter is Warren’s avatar in this contest, then Representative Ro Khanna is Sanders’ potential surrogate. Khanna has not yet made a decision on whether to enter the fray, as many of Sanders’ backers are urging him to consider a run for the presidency next year instead.  But just as Sanders and Warren circled each other for months in 2020 to be the left’s standard-bearer in that year’s presidential primary, it's not hard to see Khanna and Porter playing similar roles in this Senate campaign.

Most recently, and potentially most impactfully, Representative Adam Schiff declared his own candidacy for the seat late last week. After coming to the House as a center-left Democrat, Schiff has been emphasizing his progressive credentials more aggressively in recent years. While he is not as far left as the rest of the field on the issues, Schiff’s credentials as Trump’s chief congressional tormentor are unmatched. His announcement video highlighted Trump just as noticeably as Porter’s featured Warren.

Biden will not take sides in this primary, of course, but his own path to the nomination in 2020 could be instructive. Like Schiff, Biden was a white man facing a field of female and minority candidates, could not match his opponents’ progressive grounding on the issues, and didn’t make much of an effort to do so. But also like Schiff, Biden appealed to his party’s deep-seated hatred of Trump and rode that animus to the nomination and the White House.

The question is no longer whether this is a progressive party, but what type of progressivism. Will California Democrats define themselves primarily on economic policy with Porter, on cultural and societal issue with Lee, or as a defender of democracy with Schiff? The answer will shape Democratic campaigns for years to come, on both coasts and at all levels of politics and governance. But Trump will be on the ballot next year too. So right now, the smart money should be on Schiff and his battle against the Republican Voldemort.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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Image Credit: Brandon Starr/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)