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California Progressives: Wait til 2024 for U.S. Senate?

It came as no surprise last week when Alex Padilla announced his 2022 candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat to which Gov. Gavin Newsom recently appointed him. This included Padilla releasing more than 50 endorsements from current Californian elected officials in Congress and statewide offices, which nonetheless featured a few eyebrow-raisers.

The endorsements included 40 of the 42 members of California’s Democratic House delegation. However, the two withholding their endorsements were not the two House members with the largest standing war chests: Adam Schiff ($13.9 million) or Katie Porter ($10.3 million). Instead, the endorsement holdouts were Reps. Ro Khanna and Maxine Waters.

Neither Khanna, Waters nor their teams would comment. Of greatest interest are the plans of Khanna. He was national chairman of the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and Khanna reported raising $1.5 million in the first quarter this year, with nearly $3.5 million in cash on hand.

By comparison, Padilla has $2.4 million on hand, but most observers see Padilla as a lock for the seat. This includes Democratic consultant Steven Maviglio.

“Everybody thinks about [moving up to the Senate] because they want to be relevant, but I think it would be a fool’s errand” to oppose Padilla, he said. “The whole Democratic establishment has already lined up for Padilla. You have the fact that he is California’s first Latino senator, so there are a lot of people who would be hesitant to knock someone out who has achieved that milestone.”

Maviglio noted that since being appointed senator, Padilla has worked to burnish his appeal to Progressives. This included coming out for single-payer health care, the Green New Deal and ending the filibuster. These issues are not exclusively supported by Progressives, but Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are central to the Progressive platform.

Plus Progressives in California may recall as a state senator in 2012 Padilla abstained from voting on the California Universal Care Act. This was significant as the bill failed by just two votes in the State Senate.

More recently in the 2020 presidential race, then Secretary of State Padilla endorsed Kamala Harris early on, as did most of California’s statewide officeholders. After Harris dropped out, Padilla then endorsed Joe Biden well ahead of California’s March primary. Progressive candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ultimately finished first and third – sandwiched around Biden – with a combined 49.2% of the California primary vote.

Although that 49.2% represents the largest part of the California Democratic electorate, Peter Myers of the Bay area consultancy The Next Generation also doesn’t see a strong 2022 Senate pathway for a Progressive candidate.

“With Padilla, you have someone who has won statewide election before, and I would be very surprised if he had a serious Democratic challenger.” Myers said. “If anyone is picking their shot, I think [Dianne] Feinstein will be the more interesting one to keep your powder dry to run against or if she leaves the seat.”

Feinstein’s Senate seat comes up in 2024, when she will be 91. So far, she hasn’t done much fundraising. She reported raising just $513 in Q1 this year, and her cash on hand of $37,000 does not suggest she has begun to seriously consider running a sixth time.

Myers said if a Progressive does run against Padilla this could serve as a “test run for what a race against Feinstein’s seat would look like.”

In Khanna’s case, he would eventually need to choose whether to appear on the June 2022 primary ballot as either a Senate or House candidate. However, the Silicon Valley representative won his last election with 71% of the vote. So theoretically, he could test the waters for Senate, increase his statewide network, and then decide for which seat to run before the March 11, 2022, filing deadline.

This would be a statewide version of the 2020 presidential campaign run by fellow Bay area Rep. Eric Swalwell. His presidential bid increased his national profile, but he withdrew ahead of the ballot deadline to retain his Congressional seat.

Another knock against Padilla’s progressive record is his embrace of corporate donors. Khanna does not accept donations from corporations or political action committees, but in just his first quarter as U.S. Senator, Padilla accepted $364,600 in PAC money.

This included nearly one of every five PAC dollars coming from 25 heavily fined corporations that have paid penalties and settlements to federal and state governments ranging anywhere from $500,000 to more than a billion dollars since 2000. This covered 1,351 individual violations and settlements. Padilla’s most heavily fined donors were:

  • $2.5 billion – Verizon

  • $1.6 billion – Toyota North America

  • $1.5 billion – HCA (the hospitals conglomerate for which Republican Senator Rick Scott once served as CEO)

  • $1.3 billion – T-Mobile

  • $1.2 billion – Viatris (corporate owner of Mylan of EpiPen price-gouging fame. Mylan’s CEO is Heather Bresch, daughter of Senator Joe Manchin)

Despite this late last week, Padilla announced an endorsement from his new colleague Sen. Warren. During her presidential campaign, Warren pledged not to take money from federal lobbyists or PACs of any kind.

This makes Khanna’s endorsement silence all the more curious. But Maviglio thought that more likely House members like Khanna who wish to move up are more focused on whether Feinstein finishes her term and retires.

“I think they are all waiting,” he said.

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