IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rep. Katie Porter’s Senate campaign conundrum

Porter would make a solid Senate candidate, but unlike Ro Khanna or Adam Schiff, leaving her House seat to run may come at a potentially high cost to the Democratic Party.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., at the Capitol on Dec. 19, 2019.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., at the Capitol on Dec. 19, 2019.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

The New Year has already been busy for California politics. Gov. Gavin Newsom was sworn in for a second term amid widespread speculation about his presidential ambitions. One Californian was stepping down as House speaker as another, following an extremely contentious and lengthy process, was chosen to replace her. Even the city of San Francisco got in on the act, taking 17 ballots to choose who would preside over the Board of Supervisors.

The GOP is likely to have a better chance in Porter's district with her out of the picture.

While all this was happening, speculation about who will run to succeed Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate when her term expires at the end of 2024 has also been heating up. Feinstein, who won her first election a few months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and has been in the Senate since 1992, has yet to officially announce whether she will seek a sixth term. However, she turns 90 this year, so most assume she will not run again.

Enter Katie Porter, the first candidate to announce her intention to run for Feinstein’s seat. She has been a Democratic member of the House since 2019, winning a historically Republican district that includes parts of Orange County. The idea of Porter using one of her famous whiteboards to get the better of the likes of Sens. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate would delight partisan Democrats. Additionally, if she were elected, it would ensure that California, where several women, including Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Vice President Kamala Harris have served the state well in the Senate, would still have one female senator.

As a strong fundraiser with a good national profile, Porter would be a solid candidate.

At first glance, it might look like the race to succeed Feinstein has no real downside for California Democrats, who will have a choice between several well-liked politicians (possibly including Reps. Ro Khanna, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee ), but Porter’s situation is a little more complicated. Her Senate run has a potential downside for national Democrats that should be clear.

It begins with one of the reasons she may be running for the Senate: Her Orange County district is not an easy one for a Democrat to win. Last year, her re-election campaign was one of the last to be decided in the country, as her winning margin was about 9,000 votes. Porter won in 2018 and 2020 by similarly close margins. If she stays in the House, she can expect close races every two years and eventually may lose one.

For Porter, the logic and political equation behind her decision to run for the Senate, and thus give up her seat in the House after this term (she is not allowed to run for re-election to the House while simultaneously running for the Senate) was not complicated. If she wins the Senate, she will likely have an easy race every six years, than a tough re-election fight every two years.

Porter was able to use her national name recognition to raise enough money to win re-election last year, but a first-time Democratic congressional candidate is unlikely to have those political assets.

The problem Porter’s campaign raises for the Democrats has nothing to do with her chances of winning or what she would do in the Senate. It has everything to do with her departure from the House, which could make it more difficult for the Democrats to retain that seat and therefore regain control in 2024. Because Porter is running for the Senate, her district will now be an open seat, giving the Republicans a much better chance of winning there. Porter was able to use her national name recognition to raise enough money to win re-election last year, but a first-time Democratic congressional candidate is unlikely to have those political assets. 

Even if a Democrat wins the seat in 2024, that new member of Congress will have to defend it again in 2026. Given how close the margins have been in the House recently, with the majority party having an advantage of fewer than 10 seats in the last two congressional sessions, every seat matters, and the GOP is likely to have a better chance in her district with Porter out of the picture.

The other Democratic members of the House reported to be considering the race, Khanna, Schiff and Lee, come from safe Democratic districts. If they decide to seek the Senate seat, there will be no cost to House Democrats because their replacements are almost sure to be Democrats as well. 

Moreover, in the big picture, the difference between having Schiff, Khanna, Porter or any other prominent Democrat from California in the Senate is very little. All would count toward a potential Democratic majority in that body, vote with fellow Democrats on almost every bill, support a Democratic president and oppose a future Republican chief executive.

Based on the communication skills, political savvy and understanding of public policy that Porter has demonstrated in the House, there is no question that she would be an excellent senator and is embarking on winnable race. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, it could come at a potentially high cost as well.