Katie Porter just kicked off California’s Senate race — and created a big Democratic liability

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Rep. Katie Porter of California wasn’t subtle about how many f*cks she gives that her state’s senior senator hasn’t yet announced her plans for 2024. The progressive Congress member from Orange County announced her candidacy for Senate Tuesday morning, kick-starting what will become a crowded, intense, and extremely expensive campaign to represent California in 2025.

Her candidacy was expected. She is one of the most visible figures from California in liberal and progressive political circles, making a name for herself with viral moments interrogating banking executives, and she’s been winning competitive seats in California’s historic conservative heartland of Orange County by thin margins since 2018’s blue wave.

But she made her announcement before California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving member of the Senate, said anything about her plans for 2024. Feinstein, who won her seat in 1992, is now 89, and she is widely expected to retire.

“Everyone is of course welcome to throw their hat in the ring, and I will make an announcement concerning my plans for 2024 at the appropriate time,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Right now, I’m focused on ensuring California has all the resources it needs to cope with the devastating storms slamming the state and leaving more than a dozen dead.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, a fellow progressive Congress member who is mulling a Senate run, reacted to Porter’s announcement by citing, too, the historic storms and flooding hitting the West Coast, telling NBC News that “my district is facing historic weather conditions. My focus is on that. In the next few months, I will make a decision.”

Porter’s early announcement is a show of strength against possible challengers, like Khanna, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Rep. Barbara Lee (who have been running shadow campaigns to try to shore up support before going public), but it isn’t likely to clear the field. Though Porter is one the Democratic Party’s strongest fundraisers (she raised $25 million in 2022 and has $7 million in her war chest), her rivals also ended the 2022 midterms with significant amounts of money (Schiff with $20 million, Khanna with $5 million).

Money matters in any election, but California elections are especially expensive. Its pricey media markets, huge Democratic voting population, and diverse communities make it difficult for candidates to reach voters. And the state has a nonpartisan primary process, meaning the top two Democrats (and they will likely be Democrats because California Republicans don’t have a roster of credible statewide candidates) who win votes on primary day will have to duke it out in the general election. Combined, that points to a Senate contest that could cost a historic amount.

The race will also garner a ton of attention. Some of the Democratic Party’s most recognizable national figures, who frequently go viral and benefited from their opposition to Trump during his presidency, will be toughing it out for the country to watch. Each will likely draw in heaps of donations from progressive and liberal Democratic voters.

That may create a challenge for Democrats running in competitive races across the country in 2024. Though Democrats are only separated from House control by a handful of seats and have some plausible paths for retaking their majority, their odds of holding control of the Senate are slim because of how unfavorable the playing field is. California is a safe seat for Democrats, but money and attention flowing to a Democratic stronghold might stymie efforts to send every available dime and ounce of talent to the battleground races in states like Arizona and Pennsylvania. Democrats will need to defend 23 seats, including in GOP strongholds like West Virginia, and will need all the help they can get to seize victory nationally.

Though a recognized progressive who has already been endorsed by progressive groups, Porter will likely face questions about her alleged treatment of staff and police in her district. She has been accused by a former employee of using racist and insensitive language and of creating a toxic work environment. How much that will affect her race is unclear, especially given coverage of how women candidates behave can often carry a tinge of sexism and can be weaponized against them.

She has also only run in a majority-white region of Southern California, and will have to develop and implement a strategy to reach the millions of Asian, Black, and Latino voters that make up about half of California’s electorate. That tension in outreach and representation was magnified during the succession fight over Vice President Kamala Harris’s Senate seat when she and Biden were elected. Her vacancy left the Senate with zero Black female representation, and leaders from every demographic group in California were vying for the seat that Sen. Alex Padilla was ultimately appointed to (and which he won for a full term in November). Faced with a diverse field of candidates, Porter won’t be able to make the same case for representation as some of her likely rivals can for increasing representation in California and in the Senate.

Politically, her decision to run for Senate also leaves Democrats vulnerable in a highly competitive district that has started to return to Republican hands after Democrats swept all seven House seats in historically Republican Orange County in 2018. Porter faced a tough contest in 2022 against businessman Scott Baugh last year to hold her redistricted seat and only won by a few thousand votes and by a smaller margin than her previous elections.

Baugh is running for the seat again, and he has a better shot of winning an open seat than if he were to face an incumbent. With a tiny Republican majority in the House and a competitive map in 2024, every seat counts for Democrats to regain control of Congress, or for Republicans to expand their margins and either empower a Republican president or hinder the power of a reelected Biden.

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