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California Will Finally See a Highly Competitive Contest for U.S. Senate

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California hasn’t had a really competitive U.S. Senate race for many years, but the current contest upends that trend, says Dan Walters. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
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California has seen some humdinger contests for its U.S. Senate seats, but none worthy of note in this century.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Two women, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, captured the two seats 31 years ago and held them for decades. Republicans haven’t mounted a serious Senate drive for a quarter-century, and the state’s current senators, Democrats Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler, were appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Republicans are still frozen out by their retreat into irrelevancy and a very lopsided Democratic voter majority. However, a year from now California voters will be electing a new senator, almost certainly another Democrat, and the contest is likely to become heated.

Butler’s decision not to run for the Senate after filling out the brief remainder of the recently deceased Feinstein’s final term solidified what could have been a truly chaotic scenario should she have made a bid.

Her decision left three Democratic members of Congress vying to finish Nos. 1-2 in the March primary election and thus qualify for the November runoff. At the moment, Orange County’s Katie Porter and Adam Schiff of Burbank are running neck-and-neck in the polls while Oakland’s Barbara Lee is trailing in both money and support.

Many Voters Remain Undecided

However, a recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that none of the three has been able to crack 20% support, which means there are a lot of undecided California voters with the initial decision point fewer than four months away.

Porter scores the highest at 17% in the IGS poll, followed closely by Schiff at 16% and Lee at 9%. Republican Steve Garvey, a former professional baseball player who recently declared his candidacy, actually shades Lee at 10%.

Despite their current low levels of support, as the March primary draws closer, Porter and Schiff seem most likely to finish in the top two and duke it out for the seat eight months later. Had Butler mounted a campaign run and divided the Democratic vote even more, it might have given Garvey or some other Republican an outside chance of making the runoff.

As it is, however, it’s very likely to be a Democrat vs. Democrat finale.

“Porter holds big leads among voters under age 50 while Schiff is the clear favorite of voters ages 65 or older,” IGS says in its analysis of the poll. “Lee dominates among the state’s Black voters and runs competitively among voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area and the state’s North Coast/Sierras region.”

Although Porter and Schiff have been seesawing in recent polls, Schiff has been the clear leader in raising campaign money, enjoys backing from Democratic Party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, and is benefiting handsomely from his role as former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial prosecutor.

If anything, a recent New York Times poll showing Trump leading President Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential contest, despite Trump’s extensive exposure in criminal and civil cases, gives Schiff another bump.

Schiff can legitimately claim to be Trump’s bête noire, which is catnip for Trump-hating Democratic voters. Neither Porter, who has specialized in populist economic issues during her brief congressional career, nor Lee, who hews to the left of both rivals, has the gut-level images and issues that Schiff can muster.

One can expect, therefore, that Porter and Lee will go negative to undermine Schiff. A hint of that was a CNN report last week that Schiff has been listing both a condo in Burbank and a large home in Maryland as his primary residences on mortgage and tax forms. It had all the earmarks of something that originated in another candidate’s opposition research.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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