Sen. Feinstein’s Death Ignites Succession Battle

Sen. Feinstein’s Death Ignites Succession Battle

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member of Senate Judiciary Committee, listens during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Oct. 22, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

John Seiler

John Seiler


Updated: 10/1/2023


The family squabbles in the months before Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death early Sept. 29 at age 90 resembled the drama in the recently concluded TV series “Succession.” However, the political events leading to the appointment of a successor will prove even more dramatic.
Here’s the key: Everything will circle around what choice by Gov. Gavin Newsom best advances his obvious presidential ambitions. “We need to move past this notion that he’s not going to run,” Mr. Newsom said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this month. “President Biden is going to run and I’m looking forward to him getting reelected.”
But what if Mr. Biden drops out? Mr. Newsom didn’t address that possibility. The state Senate will have to approve any replacement, so he will be consulting closely with President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and other top state senators. But they should prove most cooperative, as many will be hoping for future appointments to a Newsom presidential administration.
The first decision by him will be whether to abide by his statement in the “Meet the Press” interview that he would appoint someone on an interim basis to replace Ms. Feinstein if needed.
“Yes. Interim appointment. I don’t want to get involved in the primary. It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that,” he said.
That means an appointee would have to promise not to enter the race for the nomination in the March 5 primary. The three main Democrats who have “worked their tail off” are Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on May 12, 2023. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on May 12, 2023. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

Mr. Newsom confirmed in the interview he would appoint a black woman for the interim post. “I abide by what I’ve said very publicly,” he said. Ms. Lee retorted Sept. 10 on X, “I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks. The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election.”
Which probably means she is less likely to get the appointment. However, she ran a distant third on a Berkeley IGS Poll released Sept. 7, behind Mr. Schiff’s 20 percent and Ms. Porter’s 17 percent. The fact is Ms. Lee doesn’t have the fundraising prowess of the two leaders.
It’s also worth remembering California has the Top Two primary system. Which means two members of the same party, such as Ms. Porter and Mr. Schiff, could win in the primary and face off in November. Which likely would mean the Republican—no major names have yet to announce—probably would finish third, with Ms. Lee fourth.
Indeed, for Ms. Feinstein’s last election in 2018, she won the primary against another Democrat, current Los Angeles Councilman Kevin de León, age 51 at the time, who since has suffered an ethical scandal. She won only 54 percent to 46 percent, indicating voters already were signaling they wanted to move on to a younger generation.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), left, speaks during a press conference in Washington on Nov. 19, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), left, speaks during a press conference in Washington on Nov. 19, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Ms. Lee is 77. With both the Democratic and Republican parties seeking younger candidates, her best shot at the Senate seat clearly was garnering the appointment. It would have been the crown to her career. But you never know. She might still get the nod—again, if it advances Mr. Newsom’s White House aspirations.

Passing of the Generations

The movement to younger leadership is evident in both parties. President Joe Biden is 80. By contrast, the aspirants are Mr. Newsom, 55; Vice President Kamala Harris, 58; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 52; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 41; Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, 48; and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, 50. Somewhat older is New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, 65; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 63; and of course Sen. Bernie Sanders, recently visiting New Hampshire, 82.
For Republicans, former President Donald Trump is 77. But contenders at the Sept. 27 debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library included, by age, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, 38; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45; former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, 51; South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, 58; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 61; former Vice President Mike Pence, 64; and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, 67. The younger ones generally are more likely to go further in the process.
For Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, longtime House Speaker and Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), although running for reelection at age 83, already has passed the baton of that post to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York City).
Senate Republicans also are looking to when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, 81, finally lets a younger senator take over.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaves the Capitol after the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington on Feb. 3, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaves the Capitol after the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington on Feb. 3, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Feinstein’s Legacy

In the hours after Ms. Feinstein’s passing, the Washington Post called her a “centrist stalwart.” The San Francisco Chronicle hailed her as a “political giant.” The New York Times celebrated her as “a pioneer in politics.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said in a statement: “Dianne Feinstein was a titan of the Senate and her passing is an incalculable loss to California, the Senate, and the country.  Though we disagreed on much, I always found her approachable, reasonable and sincere.  She was instrumental in advancing desperately needed forest management reforms, even when it meant bucking strident voices on the left.  Her presence will be keenly missed, but her example will live on.”
First elected in 1992, she was the longest-serving woman ever in the senior legislative body, the highest-ranking Democrat, and the third-highest ranking overall after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mr. McConnell. Seniority also brings the clout of plum committee assignments. The top ones for her included the Judiciary Committee, including chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law; and the Committee on Appropriations, including chair of its Subcommittee on Energy and Water, crucial for California.
Her caretaker replacement, as well as the eventual winner of the 2024 election, will be a back-bencher with much less influence and ability to advance policies for California. The state’s other Senator, appointed by Mr. Newsom in January 2021, is Alex Padilla, reelected last November. With Ms. Feinstein’s death, he rises only to 89th in seniority, although he will go up after next year’s elections of new senators.

Democrats Will Move More to the Left

California statewide Democrats three decades ago still could be beaten by Republicans and had to be moderates. In 1990, former San Francisco Mayor Feinstein lost the race for governor to Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, 49 percent to 46 percent. As his replacement in the Senate, Mr. Wilson appointed state Sen. John Seymour.
That set up a special election in November 1992 for the remainder of Mr. Wilson’s Senate term. Ms. Feinstein won that handily, 54 percent to 38 percent. At the same time, a regular Senate election was held for the state’s other seat, and it was much closer. Rep. Barbara Boxer, a more liberal Democrat, by 48 percent to 43 percent beat Republican Bruce Herschensohn. He was a former adviser to President Reagan and a staunch anti-communist, whose book on Hong Kong I reviewed in the Epoch Times.
With Ms. Feinstein no longer around to provide at least a partial brake to the party’s liberal lunching, Democratic candidates for her seat and other seats can be expected to move even further to the left. Most will not be as cautious, nor as ambitious, as Mr. Newsom. With her gone, in the replacement race Ms. Porter, Mr. Schiff, and Ms. Lee can be expected to increase the velocity of their radicalism.
John Seiler

John Seiler


John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at and his email is

Author's Selected Articles
Write a comment...
Popular News
Latest Videos
California Insider
Sign up here for our email newsletter!
©2024 California Insider All Rights Reserved. California Insider is a part of Epoch Media Group.