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Democrats brawl in California Senate race as progressives fear a lockout

In World
February 23, 2024

BURBANK, Calif. — Open U.S. Senate seats don’t come along often in California elections. There has only been one in the last 30 years since it turned into a safe blue state. So it’s no surprise that the contest to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein has devolved into a pitched battle between prominent Democratic House members eyeing the coveted job.

The race has sparked fiery attacks between Democratic establishment favorite and frontrunner Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank and economic-populist Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County fueled by some chicanery to try to exploit the state’s top-two system. In California, all candidates compete together in a single primary, with the two top vote-getters in the March 5 contest advancing to face each other in November, regardless of party.

The other main candidates in the race are progressive Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland and Republican former baseball player Steve Garvey.

“My view has always been: run like you’re in last place. So we’re running hard,” Schiff said in an interview here in his campaign office. “But knock on wood, I feel good about where we are.”

Schiff said his top priorities if elected senator would be to act on gun safety, codify abortion rights, bolster nationwide voting rights, expand the Supreme Court and slap term limits on justices — and he’d vote to nuke the Senate’s filibuster rule to achieve all that.

Polls consistently find that Schiff leads the pack to advance to the general election. But it’s unclear who he’ll face, with Garvey and Porter closely competing for the second spot. Lee sits in a distant fourth place, having struggled to gain traction. While some surveys show Garvey narrowly ahead of Porter for second place, a newly released Public Policy Institute of California poll finds Porter just ahead of Garvey by a single point — inside the margin of error.

“I am not a career politician,” Porter said in an interview. “Adam Schiff has been in Congress for 24 years. And we have done nothing in that time … to bring down child-care costs. As a single mom, I get that issue and will be a really fierce advocate for things like that.”

A fiery and personal fight

The shadow-boxing began nearly a month ago when Schiff rolled out a TV ad cheekily promoting Garvey, calling him “too conservative” for California and tying him to former President Donald Trump. The goal: Activate Republicans to vote for Garvey, boosting him into the general election and shutting out Porter. Schiff would be a heavy favorite in a one-on-one versus a Republican in California. But Schiff versus Porter? That would be a tossup — and a hotly contested one.

Porter blasted Schiff’s ad as “brazenly cynical” and a sign that he fears losing to her. But Porter is fighting fire with fire. She recently debuted a digital ad drawing attention to the little-known GOP candidate Eric Early, calling him “way too MAGA for California” and more pro-Trump than Garvey. If pro-Trump Republicans split away from Garvey to Early, the thinking goes, it would improve Porter’s prospects of making the November ballot.

“Schiff styles himself as this hero of democracy. But the money speaks to where his values really are,” Porter said in an interview. “There is no chance that Steve Garvey becomes the next senator. That’s why Adam Schiff is boosting him — to end campaigning, to turn off doing the hard work of democracy.” (Despite multiple requests, a Garvey campaign spokesperson declined to make him available for an interview.)

Porter also said a Schiff-Porter race this fall would drive up Democratic turnout in California and help their party win back the House. “Having a Schiff-Garvey race — eliminating me from the race — will hurt Democrats’ ability to win back the House of Representatives. I engage younger voters, voters of color and Latino voters at much higher rates than Representative Schiff,” she said.

Asked about the criticism of his tactics, Schiff accused Porter of “hypocrisy” for running her Early ad, saying it “directly contradicts her attacks on me.”

Schiff also highlighted his role in Trump’s impeachment and the Jan. 6 committee, which gave him a national profile that has benefited him in the Senate contest. “She was on the sidelines while our democracy was under threat,” Schiff said of Porter. “I was in the middle of the fight.”

Porter presented herself as more capable of getting things done than Schiff, saying that his history of “bickering with Republicans” will make him “occupy the role” of the right’s preferred lightning rod, a role she said Speaker Nancy Pelosi held for years.

Progressive fears

Progressives are increasingly fearful that their two candidates — Porter and Lee — will split left-leaning voters and lock each other out, paving the way for a Schiff versus Garvey showdown. Porter is best known as a Sen. Elizabeth Warren-style populist, pushing economic issues like childcare and taking on corporations with her characteristic whiteboard, while Lee has long advocated against wars like Afghanistan, for civil liberties and reining in the Pentagon.

Either candidate would represent a victory for the left. Both of them failing to make the November election would be a striking own goal.

“The progressive movement has followed this race with growing unease,” said a prominent progressive operative who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “The polling suggests both Lee and Porter are splitting the same voting bloc and could allow Adam Schiff — a white straight man without much of a progressive record to run on — to avoid a one-on-one matchup with a formidable, tested progressive in deep blue California. National progressives need to coalesce behind the most viable progressive candidate ASAP and the candidate with the toughest path needs to step aside for the good of the movement.”

Polls say that’s Porter. Porter has not called on Lee to leave the race, but she noted that Lee is regularly fourth place in polls, implying that she’s the only progressive with a chance to advance.

Lee insists she can beat the odds. “It’s always a steep climb if you’re a woman — a black woman, a woman of color,” Lee said when asked about a potential lockout. “But we have an amazing people-powered campaign. … I look forward to getting into the top two.”

The Oakland-area congresswoman said she has a longer and deeper history with the progressive movement than Porter or any candidate in the race.

“Look at our records. I’ve been the most consistent progressive in Congress,” Lee said. “Look at who led on issues of foreign policy, who continues to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.”

Schiff recalled that he was once invited to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus and “expressed interest in joining. But I think a couple of my fellow colleagues wanted to make a political issue out of it, so we decided not to — and withdrew.”

Asked if he considers himself a progressive, Schiff said: “I do. And my voting record is very progressive.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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