LOS ANGELES – Newly appointed California Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler announced Thursday she will not seek election to a full term in 2024, avoiding what would have been a costly and bruising race for the seat held for three decades by the late Dianne Feinstein.
Butler — who was named earlier this month by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to complete Feinstein's remaining term — said in a statement she made the decision after considering “what kind of life I want to have, what kind of service I want to offer and what kind of voice I want to bring forward.”
“Knowing you can win a campaign doesn't always mean you should run a campaign. I know this will be a surprise to many because traditionally we don't see those who have power let it go,” Butler added. “It may not be the decision people expected, but it's the right one for me.”
Her candidacy would have complicated an already crowded race that includes several other prominent Democrats — U.S. Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee — and Republican Steve Garvey, a former Major League Baseball star.
Butler, a Democratic insider and former labor leader, had never held public office before joining the Senate.
Had she entered the race that has been underway since January, Butler would have faced challenging financial and political hurdles on a tight timeline, all while contending with her new job in Washington at a time of global crises.
Mail ballots for the March 5 primary go out in early February, meaning she would have just months to raise millions of dollars for TV advertising while building a campaign organization capable of competing in the nation's most populous state, with about 22 million registered voters.
Schiff, by comparison, has a $32 million head start and an endorsement from former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While Butler is well known in California Democratic circles, she would be an unknown to many voters.
Butler also would have faced uncertain prospects under California election rules, in which only the two candidates who receive the most primary votes advance to the November general election, regardless of party. In a race against better known and better funded candidates, her chances of landing one of the top two spots appeared dicey, if not unlikely.
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 female 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.
As a candidate, Butler would have faced a sensitive prospect competing with Lee, whom Black leaders and political activists had urged Newsom to appoint to the seat after the governor earlier promised to appoint a Black woman should Feinstein's seat become vacant. California has a relatively small Black population at 6%, but those voters make up a core constituency for the Democratic Party.
Newsom is considered a potential future presidential candidate, and friction with the party's Black leadership would not be an asset in any future White House run.
“Her decision allows the governor to dodge a bullet and leaves California voters with three strong Democratic candidates. Her broad prior experience means that she will be an effective senator for the next 15 months,” Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond School of Law, said in an email.
In a tweet, Lee wrote that Butler “took on the enormous responsibility of filling an open Senate seat with grace, integrity and a deep commitment to delivering for the people of California. I look forward to continuing our work together for the remainder of her term.”
Porter's campaign seized the moment as a fundraising opportunity.
Even with Butler bypassing the contest “our race is still highly competitive,” her campaign told supporters in an email seeking donations. “We have millions of undecided voters to reach.”