LOS ANGELES — A crowded primary contest to fill the U.S. Senate seat once held by the late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is showing again that money matters in notoriously expensive California while testing whether the state’s long-squabbling Republicans can unite behind a single candidate for an outside chance at the seat.
Voting is about to start, with a Monday deadline for counties to mail ballots.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, who rose to national prominence as the lead prosecutor in then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, has built up a a dominant advantage in fundraising while consistently topping polls. But a large chunk of voters remains undecided heading toward the March 5 election.
Under California rules, Democrats and Republicans appear on the same primary ballot and the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election, regardless of political party. Schiff, who has warehoused plenty of money to blanket the state with ads on TV, cable and streaming services, appears to be in the strongest position to gain one of those two November slots.
He’s being pursued by two other well-known Democratic House members, Reps. Barbara Lee and Katie Porter, and Republican and former Los Angeles Dodgers star Steve Garvey, a former National League MVP who is making his first run for public office 37 years after retiring from baseball.
In all, more than two dozen names will appear on the Senate ballot for the six-year term that begins next year, though many of them are political unknowns.
Come November, the seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands in a state where Republicans haven’t won a U.S. Senate election since 1988.
With Schiff appearing poised to take one of the November spots, Porter’s campaign has been routinely targeting Garvey, with a recent fundraising email warning the former MVP’s fame threatened to “be the reason we lose Katie’s voice in Congress for good.”
Schiff, meanwhile, is running ads statewide that call Garvey “too conservative for California,” which might be intended to lift Garvey’s profile with conservatives and dampen Porter’s chances since Garvey would be a longshot in the fall.
Porter said in a statement that Schiff is trying “to game the system to get an opponent they have the best chance of defeating” in November.
Feinstein died in September, ending a long career in which she broke gender barriers and was a passionate advocate for abortion rights and gun control. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, a longtime Democratic organizer, to fulfill Feinstein’s term, and Butler chose not to seek election to the seat.
The race is unfolding at a time when the state’s once-soaring population has been in decline, and polling shows many Californians are unhappy about the direction of the state, inflation and an unchecked homeless crisis in Los Angeles and other big cities.
The presidential race could color the outcome — and possibly depress turnout on both sides.
While running against only token opposition in the primary, President Joe Biden’s popularity has been sagging and he is struggling with key voting groups, including Latinos and independents, California polling has found. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump is the heavy favorite to claim the Republican nomination, which could dampen GOP turnout if it appears the contest is essentially over by early March.
Garvey brought a jolt of celebrity to the race, but his challenge is first consolidating the GOP base – he’s dueling for Republican votes with attorney Eric Early, who previously has run unsuccessfully for state attorney general and Congress. Democrats have sought to inflame GOP tensions and discourage independents from choosing Garvey by spotlighting his indecision on the White House contest: Garvey has declined to say if he will vote for Trump this year, after supporting him in 2016 and 2020.
He’s one of the few Republicans with a widely recognizable name to run for statewide office in years. In 2016 and 2018, GOP Senate candidates performed so poorly that two Democrats appeared on the November ballot. In 2022, Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla had a walkover win against little-known Republican Mark Meuser.
While Garvey is well-known to an older generation of baseball fans, Democrats e depict him as a political novice unprepared for the Senate at a time of global unrest. Garvey also has seen attacks on his character tied to 1980s sex scandals that sullied his reputation as “Mr. Clean,” a moniker that referred to his buttoned-down image from his Dodger days. At the time he admitted to having two children with women he wasn’t married to, then married another woman, his current wife.
He has said of those days, “I think our life is a journey. … I’ve gone through a difficult time here and there. I’ve learned from it.”
The leading Democrats are mostly indistinguishable on policy issues but the contest has highlighted fissures on the party’s left wing, including over the Israel-Hamas war and so-called congressional earmark funds.
The attorney Porter has presented herself as a suburban soccer mom who keeps a keen eye on corporate excess from Capitol Hill — often using a whiteboard to break down complex information at congressional hearings. Schiff, a former prosecutor, has emerged as the establishment favorite and counts former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among his supporters. Lee often spotlights her compelling life story — she fought to become her high school’s first Black cheerleader and was once homeless, after fleeing an abusive marriage. And she also was the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization for the use of military force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a recent televised debate, Lee called for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, while Schiff has been outspoken in support of Israel’s right to defend itself. Porter opposes earmarks — where lawmakers direct federal spending to a specific project or institution back home — while Schiff and Lee endorsed them.
Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, made clear at the start of his campaign that he intended to anchor his candidacy to his role as Trump’s chief antagonist in Congress. In his campaign kickoff video, he said the “biggest job of his life” was serving as impeachment manager, and he promised to continue to be a “fighter” for democracy.
In June, Schiff was censured by the Republican-led House on a party-line vote for comments he made during the investigations into former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. During that time, the congressman was a frequent presence on TV and rolled out online fundraising pitches, including on the day of the vote when he urged supporters to “become a founding donor” of his Senate campaign.