Sen. Laphonza Butler, caretaker of the late Dianne Feinstein's seat, won't run in 2024 election

Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY'S List, speaks during a rally held by the Latino Victory Fund, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Coral Gables, Fla. The midterm elections are November 8. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
The announcement by Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) means she won't shake up an already volatile race that includes three prominent Democrats. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)
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Labor leader and prominent Democratic activist Laphonza Butler, who was appointed to fill Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat after the veteran California politician died, announced Thursday that she would not run for a full Senate term in 2024.

Despite her successful career steeped in politics, Butler had never held public office and was relatively unknown to California voters. If she had run, she would have faced the monumental challenge of quickly raising the millions of dollars necessary to run a successful campaign in such a vast state.

Read more: Laphonza Butler knows how to amass quiet power. Will she win in the public arena?

"Knowing you can win a campaign doesn’t always mean you should run a campaign," Butler said in a statement. "I know this will be a surprise to many because traditionally we don’t see those who have power let it go. It may not be the decision people expected but it's the right one for me."

California's 2024 Senate race already has a crowded field that includes Democratic U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, who have all been crisscrossing the state since the winter, courting voters and raising money. Former Dodgers star Steve Garvey, a Republican, recently said he's running as well.

Schiff and Porter are leading in the polls. They have raised the most money in the race, with tens of millions of dollars between them to spend in the coming months. In California's "jungle primary" system, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the March primary, regardless of political party, will compete in a November runoff.

Matt Lesenyie, an assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, said Butler would have faced an uphill battle to win the seat. He said he had researched appointed senators across the U.S., and found that appointees who later run for their seats almost always lose.

"If you haven't won an election before, it's very hard," Lesenyie said. "That's no knock on her skills personally — it speaks to the difficulty of being a newcomer and beating experienced politicians."

Butler had the added disadvantage of low name recognition among California voters, he said. Candidates who aren't household names need millions of dollars — or political committees with their own war chests — to run advertising campaigns in metro areas across the Golden State in order to introduce themselves to voters.

Butler's late entry into the race also would have put her at a significant fundraising disadvantage, Lesenyie said.

Schiff reported this week that his campaign had raised $6 million in the last three months and had $32 million on hand. Porter's campaign had $12 million on hand.

With the exception of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed Butler to fill Feinstein's seat, many of the state's political leaders, donors and influential unions had already cast their lot with one of the three most prominent Democratic candidates.

Read more: Adam Schiff outpaces Barbara Lee, Katie Porter in fundraising for California Senate race

Schiff has the support of six statewide labor unions including the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. He and Lee — who is running behind in the polls — have the support of most elected officials in Sacramento and the state's congressional delegation.

At a recent candidates forum, the three House Democrats all said they planned to keep running regardless of Butler's decision, adding that a competitive race is healthy and benefits voters.

"I think this race has galvanized and energized California to have important conversations about whether we’re getting what we need from Washington,” Porter said.

Feinstein served more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate before her death on Sept. 29. Even before she decided not to run for reelection earlier this year, Porter jumped into the race. Schiff and Lee soon followed.

Throughout the spring, when Feinstein was missing work due to health issues, the Democratic members of Congress who were running for her seat refrained from criticizing her, simply sending good wishes for her recovery.

Looming over the race was whether Feinstein would complete her entire term — or whether Newsom would appoint a replacement. The governor had already filled the state's other Senate seat after Kamala Harris was elected vice president, as well as vacancies for for California secretary of state and attorney general.

In those cases, the appointments effectively cleared the field when each appointee ran for a full term. Newsom appeared sensitive to this predicament in the Senate contest, saying in an interview last month that he wouldn't pick one of the candidates who is running for the seat.

“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Read more: Who will replace the late Sen. Feinstein in 2024 election? Meet the potential candidates

However, after he appointed Butler, Newsom emphasized that there were no preconditions barring her from running for the seat.

"That's her decision. And I look forward to her making that decision on her own time," he told reporters in Los Angeles last Friday. "And I was crystal clear when we discussed [the appointment] that ... that wasn't a condition and that decision is hers."

He appointed Butler to fill the seat just days after Feinstein's death, and speculation quickly began about whether Butler would seek to keep the seat in the 2024 election.

Some political strategists questioned whether she would be able to raise enough money to be competitive. While Butler is well-known in political circles, she is virtually unknown to most voters in California and would have had to spend millions on campaign advertising to change that — a costly task given that the state has some of the most expensive media markets in the country.

Still, Butler's ties to two prominent fundraising bases in the Democratic Party could have boosted her prospects.

Butler previously ran Emily's List, which spends millions of dollars each election cycle supporting female Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights. Earlier, Butler was president of SEIU California — a politically influential union that can provide campaign dollars, door knockers and votes from its 700,000 members in the state.

A day after her appointment was announced, Butler told The Times she had "no idea" whether she would run in the 2024 election — only that she planned to devote her time and energy to serving the people of California.

On Thursday, Butler announced her decision after more than two weeks of careful contemplation.

"I’ve spent the past 16 days pursuing my clarity — what kind of life I want to have, what kind of service I want to offer and what kind of voice I want to bring forward," she said. "After considering those questions I’ve decided not to run for Senate in the upcoming election."

Newsom had put himself in a politically perilous situation when he vowed more than two years ago to name a Black woman to Feinstein's post if the senator could not finish her term — a pledge partly driven by the reaction to his decision to appoint then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, one of his longtime confidants, to replace Harris. At the time she was the only Black woman serving in the Senate.

Backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, Lee sought the temporary appointment after Feinstein died. She lashed out at Newsom after he said he would not select any candidate who was running for the seat, a move that prompted two Democratic strategists to back away from an independent expenditure committee supporting her bid. But after Butler was appointed earlier this month, Lee stood by her side during a ceremonial swearing-in.

California is one of three states that could elect a Black woman to the Senate in 2024. In Delaware, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester is running to replace Sen. Thomas R. Carper. In Maryland, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is running in a Democratic primary to succeed Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.