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When Will Dianne Feinstein Return?
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When Will Dianne Feinstein Return?

Plus: Why Trump’s early polling numbers may be even stronger than they look.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on February 16, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! If you were sad that we’d already reached the final Dispatch Politics of the week, here’s some good news: We’re cranking this thing up to three times a week, and will be back in your inboxes Friday. (If the prospect of a little more of us in your inboxes every week doesn’t lift your spirits, please keep those feelings to yourself!)

Up to Speed

  • President Joe Biden isn’t expected to have difficulty recapturing the Democratic presidential nomination, but unusually strong poll numbers for several outsider candidates are highlighting some Democrats’ dissatisfaction with the unpopular president. One Fox News poll last week of Democratic primary voters found 62 percent support for Biden, with 19 percent support for Robert Kennedy, Jr., and 9 percent support for Marianne Williamson. (Throughout the 2020 GOP primary, neither of Trump’s gadfly challengers, former Rep. Joe Walsh or former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, ever polled above 5 percent.)
  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “will he or won’t he?” presidential campaign dance continues. Asked whether he planned to run for president this year, Youngkin seemed to answer unequivocally: “No, I’m going to be working in Virginia this year.” But as reporters rushed to report that Youngkin had finally ruled himself out of the contest, aides hurriedly clarified that Youngkin had only meant he would not run this year—but that the presidential election will, after all, take place in 2024. (January 1, 2024—one month before the Iowa caucuses—would be a remarkably late time for a candidate to declare a run.)
  • Former President Donald Trump plans to appear next week at a New Hampshire presidential town hall produced by CNN. It’s the latest sign the former president is expanding his media strategy in an apparent attempt to outflank his top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is—as we’ve previously reported—unusually press-averse, even for a modern Republican.
  • After Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Monday that the U.S. could default on its debt as soon as June 1 if leaders don’t raise the country’s borrowing limit, President Biden invited the top four congressional leaders—House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—to a May 9 White House meeting to discuss the debt ceiling standoff. 
  • Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland announced Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2024, creating an open Democratic primary race for his seat. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s former two-term Republican governor, told NewsNation on Tuesday he has “never been interested” in being a senator and suggested he would not run to succeed Cardin.
  • Three-term Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington—the country’s longest serving current governor—announced Monday that he will not run for reelection in 2024.

As Some Democrats Grumble, Feinstein Timeline Still Unclear

Roughly two months after she left Washington to recover from shingles, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s timeline for returning to the nation’s capital from her home in San Francisco remains a mystery. 

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrived at his weekly press conference prepared to say he had spoken to Feinstein and was “hopeful” the California senator will return to D.C. next week, according to a copy of Schumer’s notes spotted by a Politico photographer. But in a statement issued after Politico’s story broke, Feinstein’s office said her timetable for returning to Washington is still unclear. 

“Senator Feinstein continues to make progress in her recovery, however, we don’t have a timeline yet for her return to Washington which is dependent on her medical team saying it is safe to travel,” Feinstein spokesman Adam Russell said in a statement to The Dispatch Tuesday evening.

Feinstein’s eventual Capitol Hill homecoming is already shaping up to be an awkward affair. A handful of House Democrats—Ro Khanna of California, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Dean Phillips of Minnesota among them—have begun calling for her resignation, arguing that she’s unfit to serve and that her absence is stalling congressional Democrats’ legislative priorities. 

“She was a remarkable public servant with an esteemed career, but it’s become quite evident to anybody who’s paying attention that she is unable to fulfill the duties of the job,” Phillips told The Dispatch last week. “It’s appropriate to retire on her own terms before it really presents consequences to some really important initiatives of ours.” 

“I just wish more of my colleagues would state publicly what so many know and speak of privately,” Phillips added.

Democratic fears that Feinstein’s absence could stymie progressive policy goals came to fruition in mid-April when Senate Republicans blocked Schumer from temporarily replacing her on the Senate Judiciary Committee to help his party move judicial nominees forward. And then came Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision to join Senate Republicans in striking down a Biden truck pollution rule in a 50-49 vote last week. In a statement, Rep. Khanna blamed Feinstein’s absence for the Republican win.

Feinstein’s age and health have overshadowed the 2024 race for her seat, where Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee, and Katie Porter are all vying to succeed her. 

“The Senate needs better procedural rules,” Porter said in a brief interview last week when pressed on recent calls for Feinstein to resign. “We are going to have people who have babies who get sick, who miss flights, and they need to have a setup where they’re able to replace somebody on a committee if they’re unable to serve temporarily.”

A resignation from Feinstein could shake up that race. Back in 2021, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to appoint a black woman if Feinstein resigns—a campaign promise that could give a boost to Lee, who is black. Secretary of State Shirley Weber and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, both black women, have also been floated as possible picks.

Concerns about Feinstein’s mental fitness have swirled in Washington for years before her current illness, with many of her Democratic colleagues in recent years privately expressing doubts to reporters that she’s fully capable of fulfilling her duties. 

Speaking with The Dispatch in February 2022, Feinstein expressed confusion about her own governor’s decision three days earlier to lift the state’s vaccine mandate beginning February 15. “I didn’t know he did,” Feinstein said in an interview. “When is that? When was that?” Her muddled answer prompted her own staffer to interrupt Feinstein mid-sentence to provide better context about Newsom’s mandate.

Democratic lawmakers, including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, have chalked up recent calls for Feinstein’s resignation to sexism. Even some Republicans have characterized public calls for her resignation as unseemly. 

“They know it’s in poor taste. They know it’s macabre, and anybody that does speak out is suspect—and they should be,” said Shawn Steel, California committeeman at the Republican National Committee. “It’s a very embarrassing kind of approach.”

He added that Democrats rarely publicly criticize Biden for his age or Democratic Sen. John Fetterman for his stroke-induced health complication or roughly two month hospitalization for clinical depression. 

“It’s almost comic and tragic seeing the Democrat sharks circling around the boat, who was at one time a folk hero and now she’s considered some kind of a dinosaur from the past that the Democrats really want to avoid,” said Steel.

Never Trump? Try Never Christie.

Former President Donald Trump may be the most polarizing politician of his generation, leading the Republican Party through three consecutive underperforming election cycles since 2018. But a new poll indicates among the current and potential 2024 candidates, Trump is the one that GOP primary voters say they’re least likely to have ruled out voting for.

A state-of-the-electorate poll conducted last week by YouGov and released Monday by CBS News shows no evidence of a significant rump of primary voters determined to vote for anyone but Trump. 

The survey asked Republican respondents to give their thinking on nine possible contenders, and whether they were “considering supporting them” for the nomination, “might consider them but haven’t heard enough yet,” or “are not considering supporting them.” Only 12 percent said they were not considering supporting Trump. Twenty-one percent said the same about the race’s current No. 2 contender, Ron DeSantis. The rest fared worse, from former ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (47 percent “not considering”) to entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (51 percent) and former Vice President Mike Pence (57 percent), all the way up to former Gov. Chris Christie (an astonishing 70 percent). 

Asked who they’d vote for if the primary were today, Trump dominated the field at 58 percent, DeSantis trailed him at 22 percent, and Ramaswamy and Pence deadlocked for third with 5 percent.

Polling, of course, is a dicey business at this early stage.“I still have regular people asking me if I think Trump’s going to run, as if it’s a question that’s up in the air,” veteran GOP strategist Brad Todd told The Dispatch. “Because in their mind, the election’s next year, and they’ve not even begun to focus on it.”

But even if voters have yet to get a feel for Haley or Ramaswamy, they know their opinions about Trump by now. Even the minority of primary voters who aren’t yet saying they’ll back him seems far more comfortable with him than they did just a few months ago. 

Perhaps more worryingly for some of the lower-polling candidates, there’s little indication yet that Trump is particularly vulnerable on some of their signature issues. Pence, for example, is a committed abortion opponent, while Trump has been cagey about whether he’d support a federal abortion ban if reelected. But Trump still crushes Pence among voters who favor such a ban, 61 percent to 5 percent. Ramaswamy has built a brand around anti-woke crusading: Voters who want a candidate “who challenges woke ideas” prefer Trump to Ramaswamy, 59 percent to 4 percent.

Still, the path forward for low-polling candidates remains the same as it would be if Trump looked weaker. With most voters already closely following the race currently favoring Trump or DeSantis, the best bet for the rest of the pack is to throw themselves into fundraising, building name ID with voters, and hoping the two frontrunners tear each other apart as the primaries approach, creating a lane for a new candidate to rise to the top.

As such, some candidates see their positioning within the trailing pack as cause for celebration, no matter how far ahead the frontrunners are. “In less than 10 weeks Vivek is tied with the former vice president for third place,” Ramaswamy spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin told The Dispatch. “With name ID that is a small fraction of anyone else in the field. The rest of the country will see that on the debate stage.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • How many weeks? Sen. Tim Scott said Tuesday that he would support a 15-week federal ban on abortion if elected president, telling a Christian podcast that “I would sign the most positive, conservative, pro-life piece of legislation I could get to my desk” while noting that “it would be impossible for that legislation to get to my desk without us first winning the hearts and minds of the American people.” Scott previously said at a New Hampshire event last month that he supported a 20-week ban—one day after struggling to answer whether he believed in a federal role in abortion policy at all at an Iowa event. Scott is far from the only Republican to show recent unsteadiness on abortion policy, as the pro-life movement reels from unexpectedly weak results in anti-abortion state ballot initiatives and underperformance from some pro-life candidates in last year’s midterms. Last Friday, Trump walked back a week-old campaign statement that abortion “is an issue that should be decided at the state level,” saying at a New Hampshire event that he too would consider backing a 15-week federal ban.

Notable and Quotable

“Some other candidates are too afraid to take this step in their quest to defeat Joe Biden, and are afraid to do anything other than Fox News.”

—A Trump adviser to The Hill on the former president’s forthcoming CNN town hall, Tuesday, May 2

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.