To run or not to run? New California senator faces tough decision on whether to enter 2024 campaign

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FILE - Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., is seen during a re-enactment of her swearing-in ceremony to the Senate to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The crowded, wide-open race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has hit a suspenseful turn as candidates wait for the newly appointed senator to decide if she will seek reelection after being picked to complete the remainder of Feinstein's term. Butler, a Democratic insider and former labor leader, had never held public office before joining the Senate. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough, File)

LOS ANGELES – To run or not to run?

The crowded, wide-open race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in California has hit a suspenseful turn as candidates wait for newly appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler to decide if she will enter the 2024 contest for her seat after being picked to complete the remainder of Feinstein’s term.

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Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom installed Butler to fill the vacant post earlier this month, shortly after Feinstein died at 90 following a series of illnesses. The term ends in January 2025.

Butler, a Democratic insider and former labor leader, had never held public office before joining the Senate. She now is considering whether to mount a campaign for a full, six-year term and join a contest that has been underway since January. It already features three prominent Democratic House members — Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee — and Republican Steve Garvey, a former baseball MVP who entered the race Tuesday.

So far, Butler has been coy about her future plans, saying she’s had little time to think about what comes next amid the whirlwind of activity in Washington.

“I’m going to be honest, I’m not considering very much at this point,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

She only hinted at her thinking when interviewed Monday evening at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women conference in Laguna Niguel.

“It's an early job for me,” she said, apparently referring to her brief time in Washington. “But my life has been one that has been dedicated to service and that is my commitment.”

Her entry would reshuffle an already complex race in which the candidates are competing for one of two spots in the March 5 primary. Under California election rules, the two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the November general election, regardless of party.

In the crowded Senate field, a candidate could advance to November with a relatively small slice of the vote, perhaps as low as 22% or 23%.

To get in, Butler would face a daunting task for even an experienced politician: quickly assemble a campaign team that would include digital strategy and polling, devise a winning message to sell her candidacy to voters who mostly don’t know her and start to raise the millions of dollars she needs for TV advertising in the vast state.

Schiff, for comparison, has a $32 million head start and an endorsement from former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Mail ballots for the primary go out in early February, less than four months away. Many of the state’s top campaign operatives, including those who work for Newsom, already are pledged to other candidates.

“I think it’s doable, but the window is closing,” said Democratic operative Rebecca Pearcey, whose resume includes serving as political director for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. “It’s still a fairly open race."

But to Democratic consultant Garry South, who has run six statewide campaigns in California, including for former Gov. Gray Davis, that window for Butler already is closed.

“There is no practical way in a state this big … to get a competitive, viable statewide campaign up and running” in such a tight timeframe, South said. He noted that much of Butler's time will be consumed by demands of her new job — and the narrow Democratic Senate majority assures there will be pressure to be in Washington for votes. Then she’d face time-sucking flights back to California to campaign.

“I don’t care if you have ‘senator’ in front of your name or not,” South added. “It can’t be done.”

Newsom selected Butler Oct. 1, calling her the kind of candidate he would build “if I had to literally design from my imagination.” She became only the third Black female senator in history, and the first openly LGBTQ+ senator from California.

Prior to being appointed, Butler headed Emily’s List, a national organization that raises money for women candidates who support abortion rights. She also served as a senior adviser to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign while working at a political firm founded by Newsom’s longtime strategists. She briefly worked in the private sector for Airbnb.

Her potential Democratic rivals have offered pleasantries since Butler was appointed.

Lee, who attended Butler's swearing in celebration, tweeted her congratulations and added, “I am singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate.” Schiff, who also attended the festivities, tweeted his well wishes and said he looked forward to working with her. Porter praised her advocacy for working families and noted the historic importance of the appointment.

Pearcey noted that incumbency comes with its own value, including the ability to stay in the headlines and an in-house publicity operation.

“My recommendation would be to use the power of the office — showing she is delivering for the people of California is how I would start,” Pearcey said. Then, on the campaign side, Butler could talk about Democratic legislative wins and building on Feinstein’s legacy.

In a crowded field in which the Democrats are mostly in agreement on policy, being a fresh face at the Capitol could be an asset with voters exhausted by Washington gridlock and bickering.

“I think that voter apathy toward Congress is going to be a liability” for established lawmakers like Schiff, Lee and Porter, Pearcey said.

In an election season where the economy is a top issue, Butler “has had nothing to do with gas prices and inflation,” she added.

Raising money quickly is always a grind, and television ads can cost $2 million or more for just one week in the Los Angeles market.

A tougher, more sensitive prospect would be competing with Lee, who Black leaders and political activists had urged Newsom to appoint to the seat. California has a relatively small Black population at 6%, but those voters make up a core constituency for the Democratic Party.

“They occupy the same space,” Pearcey said, doubting that Butler would run attack ads against the long-serving congresswoman who is revered in the Black community.

A memo from Lee's campaign to her finance council late last month, before Feinstein's death and based on internal voter research, found awareness of the race was “extremely low” and candidates remained largely unknown to many voters. It concluded in part that Lee needed to accelerate her fundraising to reach voters who would be receptive to her candidacy, after trailing Schiff and Porter in the money race thus far.

National Democratic fundraising could pose a challenge in 2024, since the California Senate seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands when control of the chamber will be decided elsewhere.

Butler has until Dec. 8 to decide if she'll enter the contest.

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AP writer Ayanna Alexander contributed from Washington.