Soon after Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) jumped into the race for the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, he asked freshman Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles) for her support. He’d backed her 2022 campaign, and she was happy to endorse him.
Just a few weeks later, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) announced she’d be running against Schiff. Kamlager-Dove told Lee that she would endorse her too.
The unusual dual endorsement is a sign of the uncomfortable dynamics inside California’s Democratic House delegation as Schiff, Lee and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) vie for their colleagues’ support in one of 2024’s highest-profile Senate races.
“I’m happy to be serving alongside Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Barbara Lee and I think each of them has tremendous qualities that would make them amazing senators,” Kamlager-Dove told The Times.
“They are both big deals,” she added.
Capitol Hill is tight quarters, especially for members from the same state. Schiff, Porter and Lee are constantly bumping into one another and their other California colleagues in the hallways, the elevators, at committee hearings and on the House floor. The California delegation has a weekly Wednesday lunch. Lawmakers say they’ve spotted Schiff and Porter on the same flights from D.C. to LAX.
And while the Senate hopefuls and their colleagues insist that no one’s trying to make things weird, some California Democrats admit that having the three running against one another has created an uncomfortable situation.
“They’re all friends. So yes, it is awkward when you have friends who are running against each other for the Senate seat,” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Indio) told The Times.
Conversations with more than half of the 40 members of California’s Democratic House delegation revealed that the trio of lawmakers had remained civil adults and had not put any of them in a tough spot.
But it’s still early in the race, and many fretted that as the March primary approaches, things might ratchet up. A potential November election between two of the Democrats could make matters tougher.
“They haven’t had a debate yet. They haven’t started doing their messaging and all of that. That really starts to increase the emotional intensity,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), who backs Schiff.
It’s hard to overstate how claustrophobic Congress can be. During interviews about the Senate contest, multiple members glanced around to make sure none of the three candidates were within earshot.
As I talked to Porter near the House floor a few days ago, Schiff stepped out of an elevator just feet away. His spokeswoman shot me a smirk.
“It’s just a scrum here of various humans,” Porter said after Schiff walked away.
Porter said that she’d ridden the House subway with Lee just the day before and that they’d chitchatted amiably. They both sit on the House Appropriations Committee, so they often see each other at hearings. And Schiff said he often bumped into his Senate opponents on the House floor.
“When Adam goes down to the House floor, everybody’s looking around to see where people are at,” said one California Democrat.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), who backs Lee, said he’d been surprised at how little tension there seemed to be among the candidates — so far.
“It’s probably because it’s early,” he said.
Although most members speaking on the record said that everything was hunky-dory, they admitted privately that they were worried how the race might develop — and what strains it could put on the delegation.
“It’s just difficult. You have relationships with your colleagues; you work with them,” one long-serving California House Democrat said. “I certainly hope that it remains amicable.”
That Democrat was one of several who pointed to the 2012 race between Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman as a cautionary tale.
The two had a tense relationship going back decades, and when a new congressional map tossed them into the same San Fernando Valley district, they were soon at each other’s throats — almost literally.
During their final debate, Berman got in Sherman’s face, and Sherman responded by grabbing him around the shoulders (he disputed later that it was a headlock) and asking Berman: “You want to get into this?” A police officer stepped in to separate them.
Sherman (D-Northridge) told The Times that the race got so nasty partially because he had been squabbling with Berman and Berman’s brother Michael, a powerful political consultant who ran Democrats’ gerrymandering efforts, for decades, and said that the “cage match” of running in a House race was much more tense than a statewide campaign.
But he warned that another component that made his race against Berman so brutal could play out in the Senate contest.
If no Republican finishes in the top two of California’s all–party March primary, two of the three Democrats will have to spend eight more months running against each other.
That’s a real possibility: A recent Public Policy Institute of California survey found a tight three-way race, with all three Democrats in the teens and Porter slightly ahead. The trio led every declared Republican hopeful, none of whom polled in the double-digits.
“The only thing worse than running against a colleague once is doing it twice in the same year,” Sherman said.
Right now, all three Democrats have a strong incentive to play nice. Any candidate who punches too hard against an opponent risks alienating a potential future ally who could be a valuable endorsement in the general election. The same can be said of their supporters.
But that incentive is likely to disappear in November.
In 2016, after a relatively peaceful Senate primary, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) found herself trailing badly against then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris in the general election. When then-President Obama endorsed Harris, who was a longtime ally, Sanchez said he did it partially because they were both Black — a claim that inflamed Black-Latino tensions.
All three of the House Democrats vying to replace Feinstein have faced some version of this quandary before.
When Porter first ran in 2018, she faced off against Dave Min — a fellow law professor at UC Irvine. They’d known each other for years, not only working together but living in the same neighborhood. Their kids attend the same elementary school.
That race got exceedingly tense. Rumors flew about Porter’s divorce, in which she and her ex-husband accused each other of abuse; a judge sided with Porter. Porter and other Democrats stated publicly that they believed Min and his allies were behind the rumors, which he denied. Min ran what Porter called called “sexist” attack ads criticizing her professional credentials.
But they’ve patched things up: Min, now a state senator, is backing her U.S. Senate race, and she’s supporting his bid to replace her in the House.
“After an election, you know, it’s difficult both for the winner and the loser. You’re tired. You’re trying to plot your next journey,” Porter said. “So I think we both took a couple of weeks to kind of figure out what that meant for us.”
Min didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Lee ran against fellow California Democrat Linda Sánchez (D-Whittier) for vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus in 2016, losing a close race that created some internal tensions in the delegation.
Two years later she ran against now-House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) in a contest for caucus chair that got even more heated — she and her allies said afterward that colleagues had lied to her in saying they’d support her before voting for Jeffries on the secret ballot.
Schiff hasn’t directly faced off against any California colleagues. But when he made noises about potentially running to replace former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as House Democrats’ leader last year, many members — including his California colleagues — made it clear that he didn’t have a chance against Jeffries.
Few in the delegation wanted to talk about those races.
“You’re looking for trouble in all the wrong places,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) told The Times before walking away.
“Don’t write stories about division. Write stories about positive stuff,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a Lee supporter, responded when asked about Lee’s previous runs for House leadership.
But not all endorsements carry lasting tensions.
Takano, although he is backing Schiff, said he admired the “political maturity” Porter showed in endorsing Min “after a very bitter primary fight,” and pointed out that she’d backed Takano in his own bid to be ranking member on a committee after he’d endorsed Min in that primary.
And Sherman is backing Schiff even though Schiff endorsed Sherman’s opponent in 2012.
The entire Democratic delegation — including Porter and Lee — rallied around Schiff when Republicans moved to censure him in June. And the trio have continued to work together. Lee is a co-sponsor on legislation Schiff introduced with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) just a few weeks ago.
All three of the Senate candidates have insisted that things haven’t been awkward for them.
“It’s very comfortable. We have a lot of respect for each other,” Porter said.
“No awkwardness on my part,” Lee said. “ I’m running to win, and everybody’s running to win. … All of us know what elections are all about.”
“It has been very cordial,” Schiff said.
Schiff and Lee have known each other for decades — they served in the state Legislature together in the 1990s before being elected to Congress.
“I spoke with her before the race. I said: ‘You and I have been friends before this race started, we’ll be friends during, and we’ll be friends after, however it turns out,” Schiff said.
The situation might be a little less awkward for Schiff, since more than half of the California delegation’s Democrats are supporting him, including Pelosi.
“I respect them all. I love them all. But I’m for Adam. I think that we really need his experience and the respect he commands nationally,” the former speaker told The Times.
Pelosi said that Lee was “wonderful; she’s like a sister to me,” and described Porter as “new and fresh and popular.” But Schiff, she said, was the best choice because he represented “the most strength” to fight for California in a time of transition for the state’s leadership, as she and Feinstein are stepping away from the national spotlight.
“I don’t think it will be nasty towards the end. I think it will just be politics. That’s the life we lead,” said Pelosi.
Lee has a few endorsements from colleagues, including Khanna and Waters, and from a number of other politicians including Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, a former congresswoman; and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
No California congressional members have endorsed Porter: Her sole congressional support so far comes from her mentor Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Ruiz, who hasn’t endorsed in the race, said that Schiff had been “the most aggressive to seek endorsements” but that all three had approached him for support.
The endorsement process itself is awkward enough. Some members said they made sure to let their colleagues know they were backing another candidate, as a courtesy, before publicly endorsing. Others are waiting to see how things shake out — or plan to stay out entirely to avoid the drama.
“I wish them good success — all of them,” Garamendi said. “I’m not going to engage one way or the other.” Why not? “Why not endorse one or the other?” he shot back incredulously. “They’re all colleagues.”
Lee, when asked if she’d drawn any lessons from her previous hard-fought leadership runs against other Democrats, said that “you can’t take anything in politics personally.”
“There are winners and there are losers,” she said. “You have to be able to separate the personal from the political, and I’ve always done that.”
Porter promised to do her part to keep the race from going negative.
“It should stay a positive race. I think that is really important for the Democratic Party writ large. … We will set a tone about whether or not Democrats can compete in a way that lifts up the party, that draws people in, that creates positive energy for our down-ballot candidates,” she said. “I’m really committed to doing that.”
But some of their colleagues are bracing for what’s to come.
“The thing I hate most about politics,” said Takano, “is when there is an intra-family competition.”