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Who will make the top two in California’s U.S. Senate primary?

Republican Steve Garvey’s late entry swung the U.S. Senate race. He appears primed to advance to the November general election, along with Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff


Time’s up: Today, in California’s U.S. Senate primary, millions of voters will decide which two candidates will face off in November for the highly coveted seat.


The race is a once-in-decades opportunity to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (and succeed caretaker Sen. Laphonza Butler). The winner in November — very likely a Democrat — could hold onto the seat for decades to come.  


The result of the primary could come down to the impact of former President Donald Trump, voter turnout and campaign cash.


The race is already the most expensive U.S. Senate contest in state history. Adam Schiff, a Burbank U.S. representative who has consistently led in polling, has spent a whopping $38 million ahead of the primary, outspending all his opponents combined and ranking second among all Senate candidates nationwide. 


Schiff’s tremendous fundraising edge made the race essentially a competition for second place for other candidates. 


In recent months, that has been a fight between progressive Democratic firebrand Katie Porter and Republican Steve Garvey, a former L.A. Dodgers star who jumped into the race in October and appears to be consolidating Republican voters. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat known for her lone vote against the Afghanistan War in Congress and for her call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, has lagged in fundraising and polling. 


But a projected “historically low” turnout, especially among young voters, is boosting Garvey’s chances and hurting Porter’s odds, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released last week. A third of likely voters in the primary are Republican, the poll said.


By Friday, more than 1 million senior voters had cast their ballot, versus just 200,000 young voters, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., which tracks early ballot return data.


“When the turnout is five to one, seniors over young people, that basically decides the race,” Mitchell told CalMatters. “At that point, you are like, ‘Okay, well, I guess it’s over.’”


A tale of two races

No Republican has won a statewide race since 2006. And for months, the Senate race was almost strictly a Democratic affair. 


Schiff, Porter and Lee — ranked in that order — dominated the polls early on, as experts predicted a Democrat-on-Democrat faceoff in November.

Then entered Garvey.


He surged in polls in recent months, running almost entirely on name recognition. That was enough to get him on the stage with the three Democrats for three statewide televised debates.

The campaign has touted Garvey’s homelessness tours in several big cities, as well as his trips to the southern border and the Salton Sea, but he has proposed few specific policies. Garvey, who has voted for Trump twice, has also declined to say how he will vote in this presidential election.


But he does not need to do that to advance to the general election, some political strategists say.


“It’s almost like he’s in a completely different sport,” Mitchell said. “All he has to do is continue to be the Republican that gets talked about in the race.”


The Democrats, however, needed to stand out. Lee, Porter and Schiff — having largely identical voting records — have all fought to distinguish themselves from one another and to reach different groups of voters. They have touted different policy positions and released detailed plans ahead of the primary. 


“The contest for the Democrats is to appeal to as many voters as possible,” Mitchell said.


Lee, who is in a distant fourth place in recent polls, has touted her progressive record and often diverged from Schiff and Porter in foreign policies. She has consistently advocated for a cut to the defense budget and led on issues such as decriminalizing marijuana, impeaching Trump and repealing the post-Sept. 11 terrorist attack war authorization.


Porter, who is well-known for her use of whiteboards in congressional hearings to grill witnesses, is portraying herself as a crusader against corporate interests, rejecting corporate PAC contributions for years. She has vowed to “shake up the Senate” and has declined to request earmark funding — a process through which members of Congress request for federal dollars for their own districts. 


And Schiff, who used to be a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, has rebranded himself as a progressive and shifted his stances on many crime policies. Unlike Porter and Lee, he refuses to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. He was also the only one to support raising the debt ceiling last year to avoid a default.



The Trump factor

Another reason Garvey hasn’t had to do much campaigning: Schiff is doing it for him.


Schiff’s campaign has shelled out tens of millions of dollars on TV ads that portrayed the race as a showdown between him and Garvey, boosting the Republican’s profile along the way. Schiff has aired ads on Fox News and sent out mailers to Republican voters, deeming Garvey “too conservative for California.” 


While Trump has not weighed in on the race, his name is frequently invoked in Schiff’s ads as Schiff tries to tie Garvey to the former president and the Make America Great Again movement. At a San Diego event on Sunday, Schiff said Garvey is “in far, far, far right field.” 


Schiff has fundraised off  Trump’s post on the former president’s social media platform Truth Social calling him “Slimeball Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” touting his role leading the first impeachment trial against Trump in 2020. 


“He has really, really capitalized on being the most anti-Trump guy in the race,” said Jon Fleischman, longtime Republican strategist and former executive director of the California Republican Party.


“If you ask anybody: ‘What’s the number one thing you know about Adam Schiff?’ He took on Donald Trump.”


Porter, who has criticized Schiff for using the tactic to box her out of the primary for an easier win in November, tried to take Republican votes away from Garvey by airing ads boosting Eric Early, a GOP attorney who has lagged in polling. Her ads portray Early as the Republican who “proudly stands with Donald Trump.


Schiff’s cash advantage

Schiff, who entered the new year with $35 million on hand, was able to spend freely on Garvey’s behalf.


Porter missed an opportunity to spend her money earlier to keep Schiff’s cash advantage in check, Mitchell said. Instead, Porter has had to sell her fundraising lists for more cash in the final stretch of the primary, Politico reported.


“Katie Porter was essentially almost running for the second spot on the ballot from the beginning, and that’s always a mistake,” Mitchell said.


In 2022, Porter spent $28 million to narrowly fend off a challenge from Republican Scott Baugh, who is on the ballot again this year for her open congressional seat. If she had not spent that much, the cash she could have carried over to her Senate run would have benefited her significantly, Fleischman said.


“The entire complexion of the U.S. Senate race would have been different,” he said.



Turnout may be key in results

The low voter turnout so far is also counting against Porter’s chances. 


Mitchell projected a 30% voter turnout for today’s primary, which he said is significantly lower than the average 47% turnout in presidential primaries but not surprising, considering the rematch appears set between President Joe Biden and Trump.


“It’s about young people turning out, really, for Katie Porter,” Mitchell said. “Could we see a flood of young people turning out in the end? Sure, and that’s what she would need.”


Porter said young people are “discouraged” and are turned off by the “big money” in the Senate race. She has blamed the lower turnout so far among Democrats and high turnout among Republicans on Schiff’s ad blitz elevating Garvey.


As of Monday, 100,000 fewer Democratic ballots, and 160,000 more Republican ballots had been returned compared to the same point in the 2022 primary, according to Political Data.


“This is the Schiff gift to the Republican Party in California and is a big problem for us in this election, but also down ballot into November,” she told reporters Saturday after she cast her ballot.


Fleischman agreed. While Schiff’s boost for Garvey may have elevated his own chance to win in November, it may come at a cost to Democrats as more Republicans will be incentivized to vote in a Schiff-Garvey faceoff, he said. 


“Garvey’s presence on the ticket will be very, very helpful (to Republicans) in all of these very competitive congressional races in California that are going to help choose who controls Congress,” he said.


“With nothing competitive statewide, you could see an enthusiasm gap for Democrats.”


But in a Schiff-Porter showdown, more national and statewide dollars for Democrats would be directed to the Senate race, which could leave other down ballot races strained for resources, he said. However, Democrats would be more incentivized to vote in November, he added.

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