How Dianne Feinstein's Resignation Could Create Political Minefield for Gavin Newsom

April 12, 2023

Liberals are increasingly calling for 89-year-old California senator Dianne Feinstein (D.) to resign and let Democratic governor Gavin Newsom name her successor, an opportunity that could turn out to be a political nightmare for the governor and hinder his presidential aspirations.

Following a Monday CNN report that Feinstein's prolonged sick leave has delayed President Joe Biden's judicial picks, calls for the senator's resignation rang out from prominent liberal outlets including the New Republic and Pod Save America. Late Wednesday afternoon, progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.) became the first Democrat to call for Feinstein's resignation, noting that "it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties."

While the elderly senator's resignation could help clear the Biden administration's nomination backlog, California political analysts say it would put Newsom in a political minefield.

"The trouble with California politics is that you have Democratic constituency groups all thinking they're entitled to seats," Claremont Institute senior fellow Steven Hayward told the Washington Free Beacon. "With any choice [Newsom] makes, he'll upset some people. And if he's thinking about running for president, that puts him in a tough spot."

Newsom recently ramped up his national presence with a $10 million red state campaign that marked the launch of his Campaign for Democracy PAC. But national success is hardly guaranteed for the California governor, and pleasing the many constituencies in the Democratic Party will be a tough task.

The governor has already promised to name a black woman to the Senate should Feinstein resign, which would confine his choice among declared candidates to Rep. Barbara Lee (D.), the least popular politician in a race that includes several of her Democratic colleagues. Choosing Lee over more popular candidates, such as Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, could anger prominent Democratic donors. According to Hayward, it would be "politically hazardous" for Newsom to pick among the declared candidates.

Newsom could avoid the problem by appointing a temporary replacement who pledges not to run to keep the seat in 2024. But that hasn't been the governor's preference.

Newsom has already appointed Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris and tapped then-assemblywoman Shirley Weber to replace Padilla as California's secretary of state. He also chose then-assemblyman Rob Bonta to replace Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra as California's attorney general.

With the boost of a gubernatorial appointment, both were reelected. Padilla cruised to a full term after his appointment, even though more than a third of Californians say they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Bonta's progressive approach to criminal justice spurred public criticism, but ultimately he also easily won reelection against his Republican challenger.

The governor's tendency to appoint Democrats from Sacramento's tight-knit group of Democratic power players is "placing too much power in an appointment process than elections," said Thad Kousser, a politics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

From an electoral perspective, Hayward notes that Newsom's pledge to appoint a black woman may not square with the voter base. California's black population keeps shrinking while Latinos make up a comfortable majority, and Asians are the state's fastest-growing demographic.

But Newsom may not be able to wiggle out of his pledge. Even Porter went on the record earlier this year to say she believed Newsom should keep his promise about appointing a black woman to the seat that she, a white woman, is running for.

Update, 7:12 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include Rep. Ro Khanna's call for Feinstein to resign.