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What Happens to Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat? Here’s What We Know

3 minute read

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the longest-serving female Senator in history and the oldest member of the Senate, died Thursday night at the age of 90.

Her age and declining health had raised questions about her ability to do the job for years, and the senator had announced plans to retire at the end of her current term. Calls for her resignation rose after she suffered complications from shingles this year, leading her to be absent from Congress for months and stalling appointments on the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Feinstein is the first senator to die in office since Arizona Senator John McCain half a decade ago, leading to a sudden vacancy in the closely-divided body. Here’s what happens next.  

Who will take over Feinstein's seat until the next election?

California Governor Gavin Newson will be tasked with appointing a temporary replacement for Feinstein, though there is no required timeline for him to do so. Earlier this month, the governor reiterated his pledge to appoint a Black woman to the seat if the need arose. Prominent Black women in California politics include Secretary of State Shirley Weber, state controller Malia Cohen, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Newsom also said whoever he appointed would be a caretaker for the seat, and not a candidate already running to succeed her. That rules out Representative Barbara Lee, who criticized his decision. 

“That primary is just a matter of months away,” Newsom said on NBC’s Meet the Press earlier this month. “I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

He did not comment on a possible successor in his statement on Feinstein’s death Friday. 

Who is running to win the seat for a full term?

The battle for Feinstein’s seat was one of the closely watched races of 2024 even before Feinstein’s death, with three House Democrats vying for the seat in a competitive primary. They are Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and Katie Porter, an Orange County progressive in a battleground district, and Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against giving the president nearly unlimited war powers in the wake of September 11, 2001. 

The replacement Newsom chooses could also jump into the race or endorse one of the candidates already running. The winner of the November 2024 election will be seated in January 2025. 

What does Feinstein's death mean for Democrats' control of the Senate?

Following Feinstein’s death, the Senate now has 47 Democrats, 3 independents who caucus with Democrats, and 49 Republicans. For now, that means Democrats will continue to control the chamber.

Another Democratic seat could open if Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey heeds the calls from many within his own party to resign in the wake of a blockbuster indictment last week accusing him of taking bribes. If he were to step down, that would leave the Senate tied at 49-49, allowing Democrats to maintain control as tie votes would be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. 

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