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Elias: Khanna, Porter give clarity to Senate field

It’s still very early in this year of political positioning for some key California politicians, but already the field is clarifying for the upcoming contest to replace longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89.

Feinstein has not formally indicated she won’t seek a sixth full term next year, which would see her sworn in at age 91, but that is the presumption among her fellow pols.

Right now, the presumed race for her seat figures to devolve down to two Democrats in California’s “top two” system, given that no Republican yet appears to have any credibility in the race.

The new clarity arose first in an interview the other day with Rep. Ro Khanna, a four-term Democrat who now represents the Silicon Valley congressional district centered on San Jose, and days later, with Orange County Rep. Katie Porter’s announcement that she will definitely run.

Without explicitly pulling out, Khanna allowed that, “Being the congressman for Silicon Valley is just as important a job as being senator from California. My district has the most powerful and influential constituency in the country. I’m very happy with what I am doing now.”

He also predicted that fellow House members Adam Schiff of Burbank and Barbara Lee of Oakland will make the race.

Perhaps Khanna was somewhat dissuaded from running by a private poll he recently saw that gave Schiff the early lead in this presumed contest, with support from 40% of likely voters. Khanna and Porter were tied for second at 20% each, while Lee attracted 10 percent.

The poll did not include Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has reportedly promised both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris he will not run against either in 2024, despite many rumors pegging him as a presidential hopeful.

“If he ran, Newsom would win the Senate race,” Khanna said. But he expressed doubts Newsom would be happy in the Senate, relegated to back-bench status with no seniority after six years of exercising strong executive power.

Yet Newsom, reveling now in a role as a leader among national Democrats,  will need a perch after 2026 on which to await the 2028 presidential vote if he really doesn’t run next year, and the Senate would position him well, with plenty of time and flexibility to campaign around the country.

So, he might opt for the Senate, in which case Schiff, Lee and Porter might have to rethink their ambitions.

Meanwhile, Khanna has acted in recent months more like a potential presidential candidate than someone seeking the Senate.

He’s traveled much of the country, pushing the cause of bringing American manufacturing jobs back from places like China and Mexico. He’s reached across the aisle to co-sponsor a bill promoting such moves with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

That led the national political news service Politico to speculate about Khanna as a future presidential hopeful. Khanna did not object to this, even volunteering to provide a reporter with links to that article and another he wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine.

“I’ve been going to factory towns for years now,” he said. “We cannot let China take the lead from us in productivity.”

So for now, the race to take Feinstein’s place has at least a little more clarity than it did a few weeks ago, with Newsom still able to control it if he chooses, after drawing about 61% of the vote in three straight statewide elections (2018, 2022 and the 2021 recall drive against him).

Schiff, with prominence gained in leading two impeachments of ex-President Donald Trump, is today’s clear early leader, not counting Newsom.

Porter, a prolific fundraiser who has gotten elected three times from an Orange County district without a Democratic voter registration majority, might pose a significant challenge.

But Lee, whose main claim to fame is her long-ago vote against going to war in Iraq, seems a distant third at the moment, despite some public sentiment that one of California’s Senate seats ought to go to a Black woman.

Now they all know they won’t have to contend with Khanna, a favorite among Bernie Sanders-style Democrats. Still, none of the remaining three is likely to defeat Newsom, if he enters this race.

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