5 takeaways from California’s first 2024 U.S. Senate election debate

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BENJAMIN ORESKES, LAURA J. NELSON | Contributed

California’s sleepy race to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein finally came alive Monday night at USC, when three congressional Democrats and a former-Dodger-turned-Republican-candidate clashed over the war in Gaza and pitched their plans to address homelessness and protect reproductive freedoms.

Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland delighted in ripping into former baseball star Steve Garvey, a Republican newcomer to politics and supporter of former President Trump, who appeared at times bemused and at times unprepared for the Democratic pile-on.

“Once a Dodger, always a Dodger,” Porter said, a shot at Garvey after he refused to say whether he’d vote for Trump this fall.

Monday’s debate, hosted by Fox 11 News and Politico, was the first of three scheduled before the March 5 primary election, when California voters will decide which two candidates will face off in November to decide the winner of one of the most coveted and powerful political posts in the state.

Up until the debate, the trio of Democrats crisscrossed California and stayed focused on their vision for the state without descending into mudslinging. Monday was different. Porter homed in on the longtime political careers of Lee and Schiff, asserting that they accomplished little during their time in office, particularly on passing healthcare reform and addressing the lack of affordable housing in California.

The latest polling from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, shows Schiff leading among likely voters, with 21% support compared with 17% support for Porter and 13% for Garvey. Lee trails in fourth with 9% support.

Monday’s showdown — which was televised statewide and broadcast on the radio — may help sway the roughly 21% of likely voters who report being undecided and who could determine the fate of the race.

For many, the debate will be their first real glimpse at the candidates campaigning for the job.

Here are five takeaways from the first Senate debate in California.

Israel exposed the deepest divide

The war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza prompted some of the most vitriolic jousting from Porter, Lee and Schiff, who represent the spectrum of the Democratic Party on the subject. The trio disagree on little, but Lee’s call for a cease-fire the day after the attack on Israel stood in stark contrast to Schiff’s unflinching support for Israel. Schiff, who is Jewish, said that he backs President Biden’s path to pressure Israel to minimize civilian casualties but not say Israel should stop its operations in Gaza.

Schiff also said he was heartbroken by the loss of life among Palestinians, and said he supported the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel.

“I support a two-state solution … but Israel has to defend itself,” Schiff said. “We can’t leave Hamas governing Gaza. They are still holding over 100 hostages, including Americans. I don’t know how you can ask any nation to cease fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization.”

Israel’s attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least 25,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities there, and accusations that Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which killed at least 1,200 in Israel and left a nation traumatized, amounted to a genocide. Porter reiterated on Monday that Israel should work “toward a lasting bilateral cease-fire in Gaza.”

“Killing 25,000 civilians, it’s catastrophic, and it will never lead to peace for the Israelis, nor the Palestinians,” Lee said.

Unlike Schiff and Lee, who both took firm positions in support or opposition of aid to the Israeli army, Porter hedged. She said she supported a cease-fire, and that she wanted all the hostages freed, resources to rebuild Gaza and to ensure Israel is secure and a Palestinian state “can thrive.”

“Cease-fire is not a magic word,” Porter said. “You can’t say it and make it so.”

The discussion reflected the anger and polarization among voters on the subject. Recent Times polling found that Schiff supporters were far more likely to approve of Biden’s response to the war than Garvey or Lee supporters. Porter backers were split down the middle about how they felt about Biden’s diplomatic response. For his part, Garvey said he backed Israel.

The controversy spilled outside the hall, where dozens of protesters chanted “cease-fire now” and decried the United States’ support of Israel in its invasion of Gaza.

Garvey struggled to articulate how he’d govern

The former Dodgers first baseman, who ended his all-star career with the San Diego Padres, appeared at ease onstage even as he struggled to articulate how he’d govern. Garvey tried to sell himself as an open-minded political outsider, unspoiled by Washington.

“California, with its vibrancy, led this country,” Garvey said of his early days in California. “And then, all of a sudden, one party started to take over. There was only one voice in California. And this vibrant state became a murmur. As a conservative moderate, I thought it was time to stand up.”

Garvey joked about how his appearance “stimulated” a series of baseball references when the Democrats onstage criticized the former professional athlete, but Garvey himself peppered his remarks with sports metaphors and compared the U.S. Senate to being involved in a “team sport” and counted his leadership during championships as a qualification for one of the highest political offices in the nation.

After being attacked for his past support of Trump and his refusal to say whether he’d vote for him again, Garvey lashed out at Porter and likened her criticism to the Houston Astros cheating on the way to winning the Major League Baseball World Series against the Dodgers.

“You’re banging on that trash can just like the Astros did,” Garvey said —referring to the fact that Astros players told who was hitting what pitch was coming by hitting a can.

Garvey entered the race late and, despite forgoing a high-profile public campaign, has been steadily climbing in the polls. The longevity of his appeal, however, may be threatened by his support for Trump — who remains despised by a strong majority of California voters — and his silence on some of the most divisive political issues of the day, including Israel and what he opposed elected officials in his own part.

At one point Porter pushed Garvey to say if he believed in a two-state solution in Israel. Garvey responded that it was “naive to think that a two-state solution can happen even in our generation.”

With Schiff in the lead, everyone else fights for second

Under California’s “jungle primary” system, the two candidates who received the most votes in the March primary advance to the November election regardless of political party. That’s good news for Schiff, who has a $35-million war chest and is building a healthy lead in the polls.

A recent UC Berkeley poll, co-sponsored by The Times, found that Schiff’s support among likely voters has risen from 14% in May 2023 to 21% in January of 2024.

Schiff went into the debate attempting to stay above the fray and avoid attacks from the candidates scrambling for second place. That changed Monday. Porter and Garvey, in a tight race for second, both went after the longtime Burbank congressman.

The former baseball player called Schiff a “liar” for his work on the intelligence committee investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and asserted that the former president colluded with the foreign nation during the 2016 campaign.

“Sir, you lied to 300 million people. You can’t take that back,” Garvey said. He said Schiff had been censured by House Republicans for lying.

Schiff used the attack to reiterate the case against Trump.

“I was censured for standing up to a corrupt president,” Schiff responded. “And you know something? I would do it all over again. Because that corrupt president, that president that’s been indicted with 91 felony counts, that president that you won’t refuse to support? Yeah, he’s a danger.”

Porter also attacked Schiff for taking political donations from fossil fuel companies, which she said undermined his past accomplishments going after polluters when he was a federal prosecutor.

“First of all, I gave that money to you, Katie Porter,” said Schiff, who supported Porter’s runs for Congress. “And the only response I got was, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ But look, at the end of the day, it’s about what have you gotten done? I didn’t hear anything from Representative Porter about anything she’s actually accomplished.”

GOP candidate won’t take a stand on Trump

In a rare moment of unity, all three Democrats demanded that Garvey explain why he had voted for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and whether he would vote for him again.

“Both times, he was the best person for the job,” Garvey said.

Garvey criticized Hillary Clinton as “entitled” and said Biden “stayed in the basement and only came out in controlled environments” during the 2020 campaign. He defended Trump’s record on national security and the economy but wouldn’t say whether he would vote for him again in 2024.

Schiff pressed Garvey on what he thought about Trump supporters violently attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to stop the peaceful transition of power after the former president falsely claimed the election was stolen.

“What more do you need to see of what he’s done to be able to say that you will not support him, that you will not vote to put him back in office? What more do any of us need to see?” Schiff said.

Garvey fumed that Schiff was “trying to paint me into the corner, trying to call me MAGA, mislead … I’m my own man. I make my own decisions.”

Porter and Lee didn’t let Garvey dismiss questions about his loyalty to Trump, however.

“He … refused to answer the question. Ballots go out in six weeks, Mr. Garvey. This is not the minor leagues,” Porter said. “Who will you vote for?”

Lee added: “You cannot waffle on this. You have to say if you support the MAGA extremist Republican agenda, led by Donald Trump to dismantle our democracy. Do you support that or not?”

Clash over abortion rights

The fight for the top two spots occasionally forced the three Democrats, who are all colleagues in Congress and have mostly similar policy views, to abandon their longtime approach of ignoring one another. Attacking the front-runner can pay off for candidates jockeying for a better position but runs the risk of alienating voters who don’t like to see internecine conflict between Democrats.

Porter lashed out at Schiff for listing abortion rights as an accomplishment on his campaign website in a post-Roe vs. Wade era, when millions of Americans have lost access to abortion services.

“As a mother of a young daughter, I do not feel like abortion rights have been accomplished,” Porter said.

Schiff responded that he has been a vocal backer of reproductive freedom, and that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe vs. Wade — upending a half-century of precedent on the constitutional right to an abortion — “has endangered the health and safety of millions of women.” He said he supports a law to legalize abortion nationally, and an expansion of the Supreme Court.

“When we start losing our rights as Americans, it is a sure sign that our democracy is in trouble,” Schiff said.

Lee said that as a teenager, she became pregnant and decided with her mother that her best option was to have an illegal abortion in Mexico. The dark clinic in a back alley was terrifying, she said. The experience was terrifying, she said.

She said she would work to eliminate the filibuster and end the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion services.

Garvey said he would not vote for a federal ban on abortion, and that if elected, he would “support the voice of the people of California,” who in 2022 voted to codify the right to abortion in the state Constitution.

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