What you need to know from the high-stakes U.S. Senate debate

U.S. Senate candidates, from left, Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, and Republican Steve Garvey stand on stage during a televised debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2024. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP Photo

The four leading U.S. Senate contenders came to the University of Southern California tonight to trade jabs.

Among the top targets: Steve Garvey, the former Los Angeles Dodger star and lone Republican on stage for the live televised debate.

While Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee mentioned specific policy plans throughout the night, Garvey mostly offered broad stances, talking about the need for compassion and common sense while throwing in more than a few baseball analogies.

Garvey refrained from giving straightforward answers when pressed on issues such as homelessness, abortion and his support for former President Donald Trump. He did say, however, that he is opposed to a nationwide abortion ban.

The vagueness on whether he would vote for Trump this year drew instant criticism from Porter: “Once a Dodger, always a dodger.”

Garvey insisted that his vote in this presidential race is a personal choice but defended Trump’s record in office, arguing that “we were safer more under him than we are under Biden.” 

“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?” asked Schiff, who led the first Trump impeachment trial.

When Garvey touted his visits to homeless camps in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, he questioned if Schiff, Porter or Lee had ever been to one. On those tours, when asked for specific policies he would bring to the Senate, Garvey said he would “find it out.”

“I needed to talk to the homeless people, went out to them, and touched them, and listened to them,” he said.

Lee, who used to be homeless, responded by saying, “I cannot believe how he described his walking and touching” when visiting the unhoused people. Garvey responded: “You do that when you really care.”

While others remained in the spin room for media interviews, Garvey got into his car, ignoring reporters’ questions. His spokesperson, Matt Shupe, did not return a CalMatters message for comment.

The three Democrats split with each early and frequently as well, calling each other out on issues including past corporate PAC campaign contributions, requests for earmark budget funding in Congress, and a ceasefire in the Gaza War. 

Schiff — who has called for a “humanitarian pause” — said Israel must have the right to defend itself. “I don’t know how you can ask any nation to cease fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization,” he said.

Lee — the first candidate to call for a permanent ceasefire — said the Israel-Hamas war “can spiral out of control” the same way the Afghanistan war did — the war she alone voted against in 2002.

“If you don’t have a permanent ceasefire now, more people are going to get killed,” Lee said.

But Porter, who did not call for a “bilateral ceasefire” until mid-December, said her plan is more detailed with specified conditions compared to Lee’s. “Ceasefire is not a magic word. You can’t say it and make it so,” she said. 

After the debate, she told CalMatters that she changed her stance because the war evolved and civilian casualties rose.

The Democrats also diverged on the issue of earmarks — federal funding tied to specific projects that lawmakers request from budget allocations each year. Porter is the only one who does not request it, arguing it breeds corruption, but Schiff and Lee both argue it is necessary — and a lawmaker’s duty — to bring federal funding back home to support local projects.

During the debate, Porter and Schiff exchanged blows, although much more subtle compared to their criticism of Garvey. Porter repeatedly noted her record of not accepting corporate PAC contributions, while Schiff and Lee’s House campaigns both accepted such donations in the past. Schiff and Lee have sworn off corporate PAC money this election.

Schiff said he raised money from corporate PACs in the past to support Democratic candidates such as Porter. “I gave that money to you, Katie Porter. The only response I got was ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Porter replied: “I didn’t realize how much dirty money you took until I was running against you.”

The 90-minute live debate was moderated by Fox LA anchor Elex Michaelson and Politico reporter Melanie Mason and sponsored by those media outlets, plus the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for the Political Future. 

It was the first time the four leading U.S. Senate candidates shared a stage, and each tried to convince viewers they were different from the others — enough to be one of the top-two vote getters to advance to the November general election. 

Will the debate dramatically shift the tides, two weeks before ballots start arriving in mailboxes and six weeks before the March 5 primary? 

For Schiff, who has consistently led in recent polls, a change could cost him. The Burbank lawmaker has built a war chest to stay in the lead: He reported entering the new year with $35 million in the bank — likely the most among all Senate candidates nationwide — and is investing at least $13 million in TV ads debuting in the Bay Area, according to data from AdImpact Politics. 

Likewise, maintaining the status quo likely means a ticket to the general election for Garvey — the Republican who jumped into the race in October but ranks second in several polls. His baseball career with the Dodgers and then the San Diego Padres boosted his name recognition among voters, and the debate could help him consolidate Republican votes, political experts say.

But a reset of the dynamic could be just what Porter and Lee need as they fight to squeeze into the top two as they trail in third and fourth place, respectively, in recent polls. Porter attempted to portray herself as a crusader against corporate greed who can “shake up the Senate,” while Lee was trying to position herself as the most progressive candidate on stage. 

In fundraising messages, Schiff — the only Democrat consistently leading Garvey in recent polls — is positioning himself as the best candidate to defeat Garvey in the general election. 

Garvey, who frequently appears in those messages, is portrayed as a “multimillionaire celebrity” who could “totally upend” the Senate race, despite having no political experience and “offer(ing) platitudes rather than positions.” 

Schiff’s campaign said California Republicans are “coalescing” around Garvey and tried to tie him to Trump’s MAGA movement, despite Garvey’s portrayal of himself as a moderate Republican. 

Meanwhile, Porter’s campaign is raising money off of Schiff’s fundraising edge and recent polls putting Garvey in second place.

In fundraising texts, Porter’s campaign stressed the danger of falling behind Garvey. “Third place means she won’t advance to November’s general election, and we’ll lose her voice in Washington for good,” a text message from Jan. 17 says.

In another message, Porter’s campaign sought donations to stay competitive in the ad battle. Without naming Schiff, her campaign noted his cash advantage starting the year.

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