2024 California Senate Primary: What to Know and What to Expect

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*This article was updated on Wednesday, March 6th at 2:07 PM to fix a mistake that Senator Alex Padilla’s seat was up for election during this cycle. Senator Padilla’s term ends in 2029, and he has not indicated whether or not he will run for re-election.

March 5th is Super Tuesday, a day of primary elections sweeping across America. The voting center nearest M-A is at the Arrillaga Family Center in Menlo Park. Find the polling center nearest to you here

A note as you prepare to vote tomorrow and in November: don’t automatically trust what you read on Twitter. There is a good chance it is misinformation, and the moderation team (a bunch of random tweeters) is not always quick or active when it comes to lies.

For M-A voters, the races to pay the most attention to are the US Senate primary, California’s 16th US House district primary, California’s 23rd State Assembly district primary, California’s 13th State Senate district primary, and Proposition One. While all the primaries are important to vote in, the US Senate race is a particularly competitive one, with Los Angeles Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) currently leading by five points, Republican baseball player Steve Garvey and Los Angeles Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) fighting it out for second, and Oakland Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Republican Attorney Eric Early rounding out the roster. Schiff is likely to take the top spot, but it’s the top two that make it to the general election, so the people of California realistically will need to decide between Garvey or Porter to take Schiff on in November.

The incumbent, Laphonza Butler, who replaced the late Diane Feinstein when she passed away in 2023 announced that she had no plans to run for re-election. As of March 5th, no candidate has over 30% of the electorate, and nearly a quarter of voters aren’t picking any of the top five candidates. This is despite tens of millions of dollars being funneled into this contest by small donors and super Political Action Committees (PACs) alike.

Since 2011, California has had a top two candidates open primary system. What that means is that, instead of separate primaries for parties and a general election against the two and all other comers, like in the Presidential election, California’s non-presidential contests have a primary for all candidates, regardless of party or registration, and the two candidates with the most votes are the only choices for the general election, no write-ins allowed. 

The Candidates

Adam Schiff
Steve Garvey

Adam Schiff, House Representative since 2001 and former Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, is no stranger to congressional office. At the age of 63, he’s been in the Senate before, leading the first impeachment trial against Donald Trump, only the third impeachment trial he led. Now, he leads the polls, at 25.5%. His recent messaging has mainly emphasized his sustained opposition to Donald Trump, bipartisan record, and expanding housing incentives. On his website, his policies balance protecting the planet and lowering gas prices, and tout his extensive record in government.

His main rival and seeming polar opposite is Steve Garvey, who is currently polling at 20.4%. It is not unlikely for local voters to have already seen an attack ad against the former Dodger’s player, considering the over eight million spent on attack ads against him by the Schiff-backing Standing Strong PAC, dwarfing the 2 million Garvey has raised himself. They advertise his support for Donald Trump and rising poll numbers. Look at the 75-year-old Garvey’s messaging, and he paints a completely different picture, presenting himself as a bipartisan and Schiff as a divider of the country and a career politician. A fair amount of his policies are not typical of a Trump republican however, with him supporting green energy and practical pathways to citizenship, and declaring “Putin cannot be allowed a victory in Ukraine.” This is not to say he is a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, by any means; he is a big police ally, puts “secure the border” in bold in his immigration plans, and his main attack on Schiff is his work aiding the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which he has called “lying to over 300 million people.”

Katie Porter
Barbara Lee

Garvey’s main challenge for second place is former Congressional Progressive Caucus  (CPC) Deputy Chair Katie Porter, a mere 2 points behind him at 18.4%. Porter’s main line is that she refuses to take any money from corporate PACs, despite contrary and mostly false information from a 10 million dollar ad buy from a cryptocurrency super PAC. Porter, the youngest front runner at 50 years old, has built her campaign on opposition to corporations and their CEOs, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Wall Street. In this way, the Fairshake attacks have emboldened her campaign message in a way she usually needed congressional hearings and whiteboards to do. The policies she emphasizes are housing (specifically more workforce housing, or housing for people who make some money but not enough to rent on), anti-corruption (like banning congresspeople from trading stocks), and economic changes (trust busting giant corporations).

Sitting at a projected 9.1% of the vote is Barbara Lee. Former Chair of the CPC, and later the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as co-chair of the Congressional Equality, Cannabis, and Pro-Choice Caucuses, she has a background in issues many younger voters care about. At 77, she prides herself on being the lone vote in Congress against authorizing the military to attack those responsible for the September 11th attacks. She is the only proponent in Congress for immediate, unconditional ceasefire in Gaza. Other policies of hers include reproductive rights (like letting federal funds go to all abortions), education reform (like free college, funded by taxing stock gains), and universal healthcare.

Eric Early

Eric Early has already lost to Schiff in an election once before, as well as in an election for California Attorney General to incumbent Rob Bonta. With 2.4% of the electorate in this race, these losses are likely to repeat. Some anti-Garvey ads have placed Early’s conservatism alongside Garvey, even putting Early to Garvey’s right. This is accurate; Early’s contradictory policies call for “Communist China” to be seen as an enemy, alongside condemnations against Russian aggression and calling for peace in Europe. 65 years old, Early was born to immigrants, and now supports increased border security, to keep other immigrant families out. He also generally supports funding cops more, for all the “crime skyrocketing.” Like Garvey, he advertises himself on not being a career politician, mainly because you have to win to be a career politician, which he hasn’t.

Big Issues and Possible Outcomes

As already mentioned, Lee supports immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which seems to be unconditional. “A conditional ceasefire,” Lee said in December, “is not a ceasefire at all.” Porter, also in December, described the ideal role of the US in Gaza as to “identify and push for conditions where a lasting bilateral ceasefire is possible. These conditions include release of all hostages, durable security for Israel, and an end to Hamas’ control of Gaza,” or a conditional ceasefire. The rest support Israel in the conflict, with Schiff saying “There is no question in my mind: the United States must continue to support Israel,” Garvey saying he stands for Israel “yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” and Early saying on October 7th “I stand with Israel. No ifs, ands, or buts.”

This is notable for the fact that, among the three democratic frontrunners, 94% of their congressional voting records were votes they all had agreed upon. This becomes even more important knowing the crazy story for the discrepancy between Garvey’s attack ads and his actual policies. At some point, Schiff’s team must have realized that he would have a much better time winning a contest between him and a Republican in a state-wide California race (which hasn’t happened since 2006, or before most of us were born) than a candidate with a more progressive record than him. So, Schiff’s PACs, like Standing Strong, started to take out anti-Garvey ads that worked suspiciously well as pro-Garvey ads from a republican point-of-view. “Garvey stands for Trump” sounds good if you like Trump, even if Garvey isn’t actually as hard-line a Trump candidate as others. 

Katie Porter took notice of this and called it out, writing, “Adam Schiff knows he will lose to me in November. That’s what this brazenly cynical ad is about—furthering his own political career, boxing out qualified Democratic women candidates, and boosting a Republican candidate to do it.” From the point of view of the Democratic Party, it would make the most sense to do its best to get two Democrats on the ballot to guarantee a Democratic Senator. But it makes sense for Adam Schiff, if he wants to get elected, to turn the election into a Republican-Democrat affair to consolidate. To counter this, Porter’s PAC started sending out its own ads, doing the same thing with Eric Early, even discrediting Garvey’s commitment to Trump, to try and split the Republican vote between them to allow her the ability to pass Garvey and fight Schiff in the general. This explains where Garvey votes have come from, despite the fact that he has raised very little in comparison to other frontrunners and bought no ads himself.

If Schiff and Garvey win, then Schiff is practically guaranteed to take the Senate seat. A Schiff-Porter victory would be interesting to watch, but it’s unclear who would really win, as Republicans will probably stay home if that happens, and Barbara Lee’s voters might end up the kingmaker. There is the chance, however slim, that Garvey and Porter both beat Schiff and advance to the general, but, as unlikely as that is, I couldn’t imagine any way Garvey wins that contest. In any case, it is important, if you are eligible and signed up to vote like we told you, to make your voice heard at the ballot box, for whichever candidate you please. Just know that this is your last chance until November, when you have only the two most popular options.

Brian is a senior at M-A with a storied history of journalism. His favorite stories to write are about school, local and state policies, and politics. He enjoys creative writing, and plays chess in his free time.

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