California’s 2024 Senate race just started, and it’s going to be wild

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, attends a Hanukkah holiday reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Schiff is a likely contender in the 2024 California Senate race.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, attends a Hanukkah holiday reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Schiff is a likely contender in the 2024 California Senate race.

Alex Wong, Staff / Getty Images

There’s a big reason that Rep. Katie Porter’s first U.S. Senate campaign stop will be in the East Bay next week: Geography — perhaps as much as anything — will matter in the 2024 Senate race that began in earnest with Porter’s announcement Tuesday that she’s in.

If the race is between two Southern California candidates with largely similar progressive records — like Porter of Orange County and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank — the voter-rich Bay Area will go a long way toward deciding the winner. And that math will change now that sources have confirmed to The Chronicle that Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, is making plans to run. If Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, jumps in as well, the equation will grow even more complicated.

“The last couple of decades have pretty much shown that if you can win the Bay Area, you can win these races — particularly if you’ve got two Southern Californians like Porter and Schiff battling it out,” said veteran California Democratic campaign strategist Katie Merrill.

Porter will make her first campaign stop next Tuesday in an appearance before the Democrats of Rossmoor, which counts more than 1,000 members and bills itself as the nation’s largest Democratic club. It is based in Rossmoor, the 10,000-resident Contra Costa County retirement community.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, reads in the House chamber during the fourth day of elections for speaker. Porter on Tuesday announced her campaign for U.S. Senate.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, reads in the House chamber during the fourth day of elections for speaker. Porter on Tuesday announced her campaign for U.S. Senate.

Anna Moneymaker, Staff / Getty Images

But geography will be just one of many factors that could shape the race. Here are a few others:

What will DiFi do? Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, has not made a decision on whether she will seek re-election in 2024, but she is not expected to run. Porter told The Chronicle on Tuesday that her staff reached out to Feinstein’s staff before announcing their campaign but that she has not spoken directly with the senator.

Feinstein is tight with Schiff, who endorsed her in 2018 over the more progressive Kevin De León. If Feinstein were to return the favor, her endorsement may not carry the weight it might have a decade ago. Only 30% of voters responding to a 2022 Berkeley IGS survey approved of Feinstein’s job performance, while 49% disapproved. Only 45% of Democrats and 25% of independents approved of Feinstein.

Will a Republican run? Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina was the last well-funded, well-organized Republican to run for Senate — and that was in 2010, when she lost to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The Oakland A’s likely will win a World Series before a Republican is elected to the U.S. Senate in deep blue California. But if a decently funded Republican enters the 2024 race, that person could get enough support to be among the top two candidates to advance to the general election. A contested Republican presidential primary in 2024 could increase GOP turnout.

Only 24% of California’s voters are registered Republicans, but “with five (major) candidates in the race, maybe getting 20% or 25% gets you in the top two,” said Ludovic Blain, executive director of the California Donor Table, a group of progressive donors that invested $15 million in candidates and grassroots organizations in 2022.

The challenge for the California GOP is that its donors will be looking to invest in a presidential race rather than a long-shot Senate campaign.

The battle for independents: Porter’s campaign released an internal polling memo Tuesday that showed she would win a one-on-one November matchup against Schiff.

We generally take internal polls with a ladle of salt — even those done by top pollsters like Porter’s David Binder. Here is one data point, however, to watch: The survey showed that should Porter and Schiff square off in a November election, independent voters would back Porter by 41% to 20%.

Schiff is a more polarizing figure among non-Democrats, thanks to former President Donald Trump and his acolytes demonizing him on a level approaching former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, told Punchbowl News on Tuesday that he would block Schiff, the former Intelligence Committee chair, from returning to the panel if Democrats nominated him.

Porter played up her ability to draw non-Democratic votes Tuesday in her campaign launch video, touting how she has “stood up to leaders of both parties — as both the only Democrat to oppose earmarks and as one of just a dozen members of Congress to reject lobbyist and corporate PAC money.”

The role of gender in the race: Porter said, “I don’t look, live or talk like most politicians” in a text to supporters Tuesday. “I’m a single mom who drives a minivan.”

Porter elaborated to me Tuesday that as “a single mom, I understand that cost of living pressures, opportunity and higher education are things that Californians are worried about. They’re things that I think about with regard to my own young children.”

California was represented by two women in the Senate from 1993 until Sen. Alex Padilla was appointed to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021, Porter noted: “Dianne Feinstein has accomplished a lot for California, and that’s a legacy that I would want to carry on.” Many women and progressives might object to California going from two women senators to zero in just a few years — a fact Porter could play up.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, has not yet said whether she plans to run for re-election in 2024.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, has not yet said whether she plans to run for re-election in 2024.

Drew Angerer, HO / TNS

Lee also has a compelling lived experience that informs her politics. She was involved in an abusive relationship as a young woman, received food stamps as a young single mother and traveled to Mexico to have an abortion when she was 16 — long before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized the procedure nationwide.

“Both (Porter) and Barbara Lee have very strong stories of being women who have had to battle sexism and misogyny,” Blain said. “And that’s a great thing to have two viable women candidates running statewide who come from that.”

Money matters: It will cost at least $20 million to run a viable Senate primary campaign given California’s expensive media markets. That’s one reason Porter launched her campaign days after being sworn in to a third term in the House.

Porter has $7.7 million cash on hand, according to the latest federal campaign finance report. She raised $25 million last year but had to drain much of that in an unexpectedly tough House race in a redrawn, more GOP district. Schiff, one of the party’s most popular national figures after his role in Trump’s impeachment and on the Jan. 6 commission, raised a similar amount last year, but he has nearly $21 million cash on hand after an easy re-election campaign. Khanna has $5.4 million cash on hand. Lee has only $54,940.

“That’s why I believe Porter came out so early. She needs to say she’s running for U.S. Senate to raise that money as fast as she can to fill her coffers back up,” Merrill said.

Within 24 hours of her launch Tuesday, Porter’s campaign said she had raised $1.3 million.

Blain and Merrill said Lee could tap into the same networks that raised millions for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

“Barbara Lee has the potential to raise a tremendous amount of money nationally, because she is a progressive icon,” Merrill said.

Who wins over progressives? Many Democrats will be happy with their 2024 choices, should the field include Porter, Schiff, Lee and Khanna. Each enjoys wide support among the party’s base. Khanna was a national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.

But Democratic primary voters are typically more progressive, and the battle for their affection has already launched. Porter touted her endorsement Tuesday from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Amar Shergill, chair of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, tweeted that California “is sending a progressive senator to DC in 2024” and listed the choices as Porter, Lee and Khanna. Shergill told The Chronicle on Tuesday that “Schiff is a corporate Democrat,” pointing to some of his campaign contributors over his career.

Joe Garofoli is the Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: Twitter: @joegarofoli