As California Democrats dispute whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) extended absence from the Senate warrants her resignation, political observers expect that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will keep his distance from what could be a sticky situation politically.
Further complicating these circumstances is that three rival candidates are already competing to take her seat in 2024, and a show of support for any of them from the governor could have significant impacts on his own future prospects.
“I don’t think Newsom will get anywhere near this and will not weigh in at all,” Daniel Schnur, who teaches political communications at several California universities, told The Hill.
The debate stems from Feinstein’s months-long absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee as she recuperates from shingles, which has delayed the confirmation of President Biden’s judicial appointments.
The impasse led two House Democrats on Wednesday to call for the 89-year-old senator’s resignation, despite her plans to retire at the end of her term in 2024.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted that “she can no longer fulfill her duties,” while Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) said that it was “a dereliction of duty” for her to remain in the Senate.
If Feinstein did resign, it would be up to the governor to appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of her term.
Yet such a selection could give the appointee an advantage in the 2024 race — for which Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee have all announced bids.
“My hunch is he stays out of it,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stressing that it’s not in the governor’s interest to voice an opinion on the matter, Schickler said that “there already are people doing it, like Ro Khanna.”
A Democratic strategist familiar with California politics likewise expressed doubts that Newsom would get involved in the back-and-forth on whether Feinstein should resign.
“There’s enough people calling for her to step down,” the strategist told The Hill.
“It’s tricky for a male politician,” the strategist added, noting that it would be “dicey for him to want to big foot one of the most respected women in California politics.”
Michael Kapp, a Democratic National Committee member from California, predicted that Newsom won’t wade into the debate, noting that “as someone who has a unique role in this situation, it would be inappropriate for him to say anything.”
Immediately after the statements from Khanna and Phillips surfaced on Wednesday, Feinstein asked the Senate to appoint a temporary replacement for her on the Judiciary Committee until her health improves.
The next morning Khanna described her suggestion as “a step” but stressed that the process was “not that simple.” He defended his calls for her to step down later on Thursday afternoon, telling The Hill in an exclusive interview that the senator is “simply unable now to fulfill her duties.”
Nonetheless, some California Democrats have taken Feinstein’s side. Moments before Khanna released his initial statement calling for the senator to step down, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made the argument to reporters that she has never seen a man subject to such demands.
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) agreed that a double standard exists, while Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said that Feinstein continues to serve “honorably and courageously.”
If Feinstein does decide to resign, Newsom could find himself in a complicated situation, experts agreed.
That predicament stems from a March 2021 commitment he made in an MSNBC interview to appoint a Black woman to the role if Feinstein retired before the end of her term.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Newsom to nominate a woman of color and people will remember that because that’s been the expectation,” the Democratic strategist told The Hill.
“It’s not a good look for him nationally if he backs away from that,” the strategist added.
Schnur, a Republican-turned-Independent political strategist, echoed these sentiments, stressing that Newsom has “put himself in a much more complicated position because of the promise he made last year.”
“If Newsom does decide to run for president someday, he can’t afford to start out that campaign having alienated Black women, backing down from this promise,” Schnur said.
Schickler likewise questioned the soundness of “breaking a pledge like that,” especially if the governor wants to attract progressive and Black voters in a future run for office.
When Newsom first made this promise, Schnur explained, he had two “obvious options:” Karen Bass, who just recently became the mayor of Los Angeles, and Lee, now a 2024 Senate candidate.
“One of Newsom’s decisions is whether to give Lee an immense advantage in the Senate race by giving her the incumbency,” Schnur said.
Doing so would rattle supporters of Schiff and Porter — both of whom have “very powerful allies,” Schnur added, noting that Pelosi endorsed Schiff right after his candidacy announcement.
And while the governor may not want to offend either of them, he also may want to avoid insulting Lee, the experts agreed.
“The one person you don’t want to piss off is Barbara Lee, who would feel very slighted,” the Democratic strategist said.
In his Thursday interview with The Hill, Khanna described Lee as “a hero of mine,” noting that he wants “to make sure that African American women have representation.”
Another alternative would be for Newsom to nominate a woman of color who’s not a candidate, but rather a placeholder, the Democratic strategist said.
Such a placeholder could be a politician but could also be a nonpolitical, low-profile appointee, such as the former head of a state university, according to Schickler.
“You’re basically agreeing to go to the Senate for one year, just fill out a term,” he said. “Some might view you as taking something that should be going to Barbara Lee.”
Schickler, however, thinks that Newsom will “keep the promise one way or another.”
Kapp predicted that Newsom wouldn’t nominate Lee for the Senate seat, since Newsom’s appointments to statewide vacancies have been elected for the long-term. “If there’s a vacancy, just from knowing what he’s done in the past, Newsom would want to nominate someone who is going to serve multiple terms,” he said.
One possible appointee whom Schnur identified as someone who “might make sense for Newsom” is Rep. Maxine Waters (D), who is already in her 80s.
“At this stage of her career, she might decide that being a senator for a short time might be a good way to wrap up,” he added.
While it may come to the point where Newsom must nominate someone, Schnur said that for now, the governor probably hopes that Feinstein “sticks it out.”
“If Sen. Feinstein resigns, Gov. Newsom will have a difficult decision to make,” added Kapp.
A second Democratic strategist echoed Kapp’s thoughts.
“He’ll be in a bit of a bind especially because Lee is running,” the strategist said. “It’ll look like he’s tipping the scales in her favor so he’ll have to be careful about that. He has to try and remain as neutral on this as possible.”
Schickler made similar remarks, noting that Newsom’s staff members also must be “game-planning” and “running through a list of potential names” nonetheless.
“I think the governor’s people would be very happy if Dianne Feinstein’s health improved sufficiently for her to return to the Senate,” he said.
Hanna Trudo contributed to this report.