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In final primary debate, Senate candidates spar over Israel, immigration and campaign donations

Senate candidates took the stage or the final debate before the March 5 primary.
From left, senate candidates, Steve Garvey, Rep. Katie Porter, Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Barbara Lee took the stage or the final debate before the March 5 primary.
(NBC)
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The top four candidates vying for California’s open Senate seat squared off Tuesday night for the final debate before the March 5 primary, sniping over their track records in Congress and their political integrity.

Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Barbara Lee of Oakland and Katie Porter of Irvine, along with Republican retired baseball player Steve Garvey, emphasized their differences in the hourlong televised event, doing their best to increase their appeal to the state’s 22 million registered voters while undercutting their opponents.

The sharpest attacks came from Porter, who repeatedly criticized Schiff for accepting political donations from special interest groups funded by oil and gas companies. She also criticized Schiff for campaigning on his support for increasing affordable housing and child care while failing to add his name to bills in Congress that would address those issues.

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“That’s the gap between Congressman Schiff and candidate Schiff,” Porter said.

Schiff fired back at Porter, saying that “real legislators” author bills, rather than simply adding their names to those drafted by other lawmakers. He said he had written bills to reduce the cost of child care, to add child care to federal facilities and to raise wages for child-care workers.

The debate was held as the primary election fast approaches, with ballots mailed out to California voters early this month. As of Tuesday, just 4% of the state’s registered voters had cast ballots, according to the campaign consulting firm Political Data Inc. Voters in recent weeks have been inundated with millions of dollars in political advertising in their mailboxes, on their television sets and in their social media feeds.

The only 2024 statewide electoral contest is for Senate and includes Reps. Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam B. Schiff along with former Dodger Steve Garvey.

Feb. 1, 2024

The majority of the spending has come from Schiff and his allies, who have worked to contrast his record with Garvey’s — the top Republican in the race, who supported former President Trump in the last two elections.

Under California’s “jungle primary” system, approved by voters a decade ago, the two candidates who secure the most votes will advance to the general election in November, regardless of their political party affiliation. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, Schiff’s path to election would be much easier if he faced a Republican in November.

The effort appears to be having an impact. An Emerson College poll released Tuesday found that Schiff was leading with the support of 28% of likely voters. Garvey came in second with 22% of likely voters. Porter and Lee followed with 16% and 9%, respectively.

Porter, Lee and Schiff cannot seek reelection to the House this year because they are running for Senate.

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The U.S. Senate race in California is a monumental clash among Reps. Adam B. Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee along with Steve Garvey. Learn more about them here.

Feb. 12, 2024

All four candidates on the debate stage said they would have voted against the bipartisan $118-billion border security and foreign aid bill that was publicly opposed by Trump and has been left for dead in the Senate. President Biden has said that if the bill reaches his desk, he will sign it.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who opposed the bill, did not have a seat at the negotiating table, nor did members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus or any border-state Democrats, Schiff said. Porter said the legislation “demonized immigrants,” while Lee said the bill did not include comprehensive immigration reform and needed more humane due process provisions.

Garvey too said he would have voted against it, saying: “Not the way it was laid out. There were too many things packed in there. Too many things hidden.”

The debate exposed well-trodden disagreements on subjects such as who accepted donations from corporations or how they would respond to the Israel-Hamas war.

During a question on climate change, Porter accused Schiff of accepting campaign funds from political action committees paid for by companies she called “polluters,” including BP, Sempra Energy and Southern California Gas Co.

Schiff argued that Porter had “not been fully clear about her own record,” saying she had accepted political contributions from people who work in the oil industry, on Wall Street and for pharmaceutical companies. The problem with the “purity tests” that Porter was trying to establish, Schiff said, is that “invariably, the people who establish them don’t meet them.”

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Schiff’s accusation mirrored a new, multimillion-dollar campaign targeting Porter that launched this month. The ad claims that Porter has taken more than $100,000 “directly from big pharma, big oil and big bank executives,” and plays off her now-famous use of a whiteboard during congressional hearings, with handwriting scrawling across the board that reads, “deceitful politics, as usual.”

The ad is funded by Fairshake, an independent expenditure committee funded by Silicon Valley investors and cryptocurrency executives. (Such groups, also known as super PACs, can accept unlimited donations but cannot coordinate with the candidate’s campaign.) The group has spent more than $6.8 million targeting Porter’s candidacy, according to federal filings.

Porter decried the group as a “dark, shady super PAC.” She said fact checkers at the Sacramento Bee had called the claim “false.” (In fact, the Bee rated the claim “mostly false,” noting that although Porter had accepted campaign contributions from workers at oil, pharmaceutical and finance companies, the firms aren’t major players in their industries.)

“I made a choice when I ran for office to never take corporate PAC money,” Porter said. “Rep. Schiff made a different choice and has taken nearly $2 million, including from big oil, big banks and big pharma.”

Fairshake reported raising more than $68 million last year and $6.8 million in January. Its major backers include venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, cryptocurrency executives Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and Brian Armstrong, chief executive of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase.

The Burbank congressman and Senate candidate, known to the nation for the impeachment inquiry into the ex-president, has long been driven by the pursuit of justice.

Feb. 9, 2024

During the debate, hosted by NBC4 and Telemundo 52, in partnership with Loyola Marymount University, each candidate faced a pointed question, aimed at a soft spot in their campaign.

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Schiff was asked about his early history as a lawmaker in Sacramento, when he wrote tough-on-crime bills that sought to expand the use of the state’s “three strikes” law and would have allowed 14-year-olds charged with murder to be tried as adults. He responded that he “certainly would not author some of the legislation again,” but was proud of a bill he co-authored in 2000 that created the largest source of funding at the time for youth crime prevention and intervention.

Porter was asked why she has been endorsed by just one member of Congress from California: Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach). “I have something important in common with Robert: which is I went to Congress to not be beholden to corporate special interests,” Porter said.

Lee was asked whether she bore some responsibility for the rise of violent crime in Oakland, her home district. Lee didn’t directly answer the question, saying lawmakers needed to address the “underlying causes of some of these crimes,” including removing guns from the streets.

Garvey has said he would serve one term if elected. He was asked how he expected to govern in the Senate if he was a “lame duck on Day One.” He evaded the question twice, instead saying he would “get back to reading, writing and arithmetic to make sure that the next generation of our children are the new leaders.”

During a rapid-fire round of foreign policy questions, Lee said she would support a resolution calling for Israel to agree to an unconditional and immediate cease-fire in the war in the Gaza Strip, and Schiff, Porter and Garvey said they would not.

“I don’t see how there could be a lasting peace as long as a terrorist organization is governing Gaza and threatening to attack them over and over and over again, nor do I see how there can be a permanent cease-fire while that is true,” Schiff said. But, he said, Israel “must make every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” and the U.S. should push for a two-state solution.

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Porter said that only Hamas and Israel can “determine what will be a lasting cease-fire for them. We can’t just pass resolutions and make it so.”

Biden has said that he would send troops to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Schiff and Porter said they agreed with Biden; Lee and Garvey said they did not.

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