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Feinstein's Passing Elevates Newsom To The Pinnacle Of Democratic Power

Kamala Harris looms as a potential player in Newsom's political strategy

US Vice President Kamala Harris (R) waves alongside California Governor Gavin Newsom during a campaign event against his recall election, September 8, 2021. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
  • California Governor Gavin Newsom has become the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party due to Senator Dianne Feinstein's passing and his authority to appoint her replacement
  • Feinstein's Senate seat will be temporarily filled by Newsom's appointee until January 2025, with the permanent replacement to be elected in November 2024
  • Newsom previously committed to appointing a Black woman if a vacancy occurred, but he ruled out current candidate Barbara Lee. Speculation surrounds the possibility of him appointing Kamala Harris, who is not running for the seat, as a strategic move

For months, California Governor Gavin Newsom has been lurking in the shadows to climb the Democratic Party ladder. He was in the GOP debate spin room last Wednesday, tweeting aggressively about the lackluster performances of those on stage.

But, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's passing this week, Newsom has been instantly elevated to the de-facto leader of the entire Democratic Party. His power results from how the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution leaves it to the states to decide how to fill a vacancy. California is one of 37 states that authorizes its governor to make a temporary appointment. 

Because Feinstein's death happened more than 148 days before California's primary, the person that Newsom appoints will only serve until January 2025 when the Senate convenes. By then, California voters will have elected the permanent replacement during the November 2024 election, which coincides with the presidential calendar. 

Feinstein, the Senate's oldest member at 90 years of age, had already announced in February that she would not run for reelection when her term expired in November 2024. Three Democratic U.S. representatives, ultra-liberal Katie Porter of Irvine, Adam Schiff of Los Angeles (renowned for cleverly engineering former President Trump's first impeachment and being on the J6 committee), and Barbara Lee of Oakland, are battling in the primary. 

California conducts its elections using the Top Two Open Primary system, in which both Democratic and Republican candidates are listed on a single statewide primary election ballot. The top two candidates will advance to the general election. Given the liberal bent of the state, it is possible that both candidates for the general election could be Democrats, so the Democratic Party is virtually assured that Feinstein's seat will not change party hands. Today, the Senate has a 51-49 Democratic majority. If required, Vice President Kamala Harris (a former California senator) casts tie-breaking votes.  

Newsom's past statements about whom he would appoint as a replacement can shake national politics as the presidential election race heats up. According to the New York Times, Newsom said more than two years ago that he would name a Black woman to the post should a vacancy arise.

Barbara Lee, a current candidate, is Black. But on NBC's "Meet the Press" a few weeks ago, Newsom ruled out appointing those currently running for the seat, eliminating Lee from contention.

Exit Ramp For Kamala Harris? 

Kamala Harris is Black and is currently not running for the seat. So, could Newsom appoint Harris to the Senate seat and have Biden choose him as Vice President? Of course, it will come with a promise to appoint Kamala when a Supreme Court vacancy arises.

A Sen. Harris will also have to throw her hat in the ring and win the general election, a relatively easy task given that she already held that office. Newsom never forbade someone he chose from running so he could claim that he stuck to his word. 

Three outcomes are possible.

  • If a Biden-Newsom ticket wins in 2024, Newsom would be heir apparent in 2028. It would be clear that Newsom powered the failing Biden's campaign to victory.
  • If Biden resigns because of his horrible polling numbers, Newsom could run in 2024 as an incumbent, having ascended to the presidency. Newsom could pick another identity hire, like Pete Buttigieg, as his running mate to play to the LGBTQ constituency.
  • If a Biden-Newsom ticket loses in 2024, Newsom would be the front-runner of the Democrats in 2028.

Given how disastrous Kamala Harris's career has been since she first came to Washington, the above is not out of the realm of political possibilities.

Kamala Harris Background

Many Americans may not know that Vice President Kamala Harris was raised by her South Indian Brahmin mother, who married and divorced a Black man when the young Kamala turned six. Kamala's father, Donald Harris, 85, is Jamaican-American and an emeritus economics professor at Stanford. He met Kamala's mother when they were both graduate students at UC Berkeley. Mr. Harris received a PhD in economics in 1966.

After living with her mother in Canada and attending Howard University in Washington, Kamala Harris returned to the Bay Area in the late 1990s. Kamala's most clever decision in her career was to continue to identify as Black. Although she lived in the same city as her father, Mr. Harris has said that he has never met his daughter even once. As an independent-thinking woman, Kamala could have changed her last name to Gopalan (her mother's last name) and identified as Indian-American - but that would have been politically inconvenient.

As a protégé of Mayor Willie Brown in San Francisco, Harris became the lead district attorney (DA) of Alameda County. Soon, Brown hired her to the San Francisco DA's Office and later the City Attorney of San Francisco's office. In 2003, she was elected DA of San Francisco. She was elected statewide as California's Attorney General in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, paving the way for her to win the United States Senate election in 2016.  

In the 2020 Democratic Primaries, Harris tried to replicate another Black senator's success in running for the presidency soon after being elected: Barack Obama. But Harris bombed, dropping out before the Iowa caucuses. It was, again, a clever move because she had not yet antagonized anyone. When candidate Biden was failing in the Democratic Primaries, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn played kingmaker. In return for a promise to appoint a Black person as Vice President, Clyburn threw his support behind Biden and endorsed him. Biden won South Carolina, and with the other contenders, including liberal senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, dropping out, Biden coasted to victory and dutifully appointed Kamala Harris to his ticket. 

Kamala Harris Today

Since becoming second-in-command of the executive branch, Harris has been a political disaster, polling so low that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hailing from the same district as Harris and still wielding substantial power among Democrats, failed to endorse Harris for a second term. In an interview with CNN, Pelosi refused to say whether Vice President Kamala Harris was "the best running mate" for President Joe Biden's 2024 campaign.

Newsom now has the power to address the Democrats' anxiety about the Biden-Harris ticket in 2024. At present, Newsom is, without doubt, the most powerful Democrat in the country.

Rajkamal Rao is a columnist and a member of the tippinsights editorial board. He is an American entrepreneur and wrote the WorldView column for the Hindu BusinessLine, India's second-largest financial newspaper, on the economy, politics, immigration, foreign affairs, and sports.

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