California Senate: Newsom Picks Laphonza Butler to Succeed Feinstein

by Jacob Rubashkin September 29, 2023 · 3:22 PM EDT

Longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein died Thursday at the age of 90. The trailblazing lawmaker was the longest serving woman in Senate history, and she boasted a 53-year career of public service that included a decade as mayor of San Francisco, an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, and then three decades as the Golden State’s senior senator.

Feinstein’s death narrows the Democratic majority in the Senate to a tenuous 50-49, and that’s including independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who doesn’t caucus with either party but still receives her committee assignments from (and usually votes with) the Democratic Party. And it deprives Democrats of a crucial vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which all of President Joe Biden’s judicial appointees must pass.

But both of those are temporary issues for Senate Democrats, because California Gov. Gavin Newsom has the power to appoint a replacement to Feinstein’s seat to  serve until the election next year. 

Newsom chose Laphonza Butler, the president of major Democratic outside group EMILYs List, which recruits and promotes pro-choice women up and down the ballot. Butler currently lives in Maryland but worked for a decade as a labor leader and political consultant in California until 2021. Butler will be just the third Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator, which fulfills a pledge Newsom made back in 2021, and is the first LGBTQ Black senator in history.

Once Butler is sworn in later this week, Democrats will be restored to full Senate control, and will be able to fill Feinstein’s vacant seat on the Judiciary Committee.

There was already a highly competitive race ongoing to succeed Feinstein next year, as the senator had not planned on running for re-election. Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee are the polling leaders, while wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur Lexi Reese is hoping to break into the top tier. 

The race is rated Solid Democratic, and the seat is not at risk of a Republican takeover. But Newsom’s selection of Butler could scramble the race even if it doesn’t affect partisan control. 

The governor had said in early September that he intended to make an “interim appointment” to avoid interfering with the already underway contest between Schiff, Porter and Lee. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom said. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

Over the weekend, Punchbowl reported that Newsom was no longer insisting his eventual appointee serve solely as a caretaker and not run for election in their own right. Butler, who is in her mid-40s, could conceivably enter the primary and corral the support of the state and national Democratic infrastructure as an incumbent. She would, however, face steep challenges in regards to name recognition — given she is virtually unknown while Schiff, Porter and Lee are national figures — and fundraising, as Schiff and Porter are two of the best-funded candidates in the country.

California’s filing deadline is not until Dec. 8. But candidates seeking the state party’s endorsement at the November party convention have to register their intentions by Oct. 13. If Butler does so, it’s a strong sign she’s running next year.

Updated 10/2/2023, 5:05pm ET.