(Updates with more information about replacement procedures and Cornyn’s comment on filling the open Judiciary Committee slot.)
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The death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein creates a vacancy that will be filled by California’s governor. Here are five things to know about what happens next.
1. Replacement Procedure
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) will appoint a successor to serve the remaining year-plus of Feinstein’s unexpired term. Newsom obviously would choose a fellow Democrat, so the party’s Senate majority would return to 51-49.
Under California law, Newsom will set a special election that will coincide with the regularly scheduled March 2024 primary and November 2024 general election for a full six-year term.
If the same candidate wins both elections — one to complete Feinstein’s unexpired term, the other for a new six-year term — she or he will take office at the end of the current 118th Congress. The lame-duck freshman would be senior to other newly elected senators who would be sworn in when the 119th Congress convenes in 2025.
In 2021, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla (D), then the California secretary of state, to complete the Senate term of Kamala Harris (D) after she was elected vice president. Sen. Padilla was elected to a full six-year term in November 2022 and also won a special election the same day to finish the term Harris originally won in 2016.
In 1992, Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were first elected to the Senate on the same day, but Feinstein was sworn in that November and became the state’s senior senator because she had prevailed in a special election.
2. Newsom’s Promise
In March 2021, Newsom said he intended to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein didn’t complete her term. Earlier this month, he elaborated, saying he favored a placeholder appointment.
“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said on Meet the Press. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats [who] have worked their tails off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who’s already running for the Senate seat, responded with a statement calling that position troubling and insulting.
“The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election,” Lee said.
Potential appointees for the Senate seat include California Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell.
There are no Black women in the Senate, and only two have ever served: Harris and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D), who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999.
3. 2024 Ramifications
Lee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D), and Rep. Katie Porter (D) are the leading candidates in the March 2024 primary, in which all candidates of all party affiliations are listed on one ballot.
The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the November 2024 general election. No top-flight Republican is in the race; if that remains the case, it’s possible two Democrats will advance to the November general election, as was the case in California’s 2016 and 2018 Senate elections.
4. Recent Precedent
Like Padilla, the other most recent appointees to the Senate subsequently sought election:
- Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), who was appointed in January to succeed Ben Sasse (R), is favored to win a November 2024 special election and complete the remainder of the unexpired term.
- Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) was appointed in January 2020 to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) and lost a January 2021 runoff to Raphael Warnock (D).
- Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) was appointed in January 2019 to the seat formerly held by the late John McCain (R) and lost a November 2020 special election to Mark Kelly (D).
The last caretaker senator was Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who first served in the Senate from 1995 to 2013 and then agreed to be appointed to McCain’s seat for four months in late 2018 before yielding to McSally. Here’s a list of appointed senators since 1913.
5. Feinstein’s Committees
Feinstein has been a senior member of key committees, including Appropriations and most notably Judiciary, where her vote has been needed recently to advance President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees.
Though Republicans balked when Democrats floated the idea of a temporary Judiciary Committee replacement when Feinstein was ill, now that there’s a vacancy “I don’t see it as being a problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a senior member of that committee.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at email@example.com