Is Adam Schiff playing dirty in the battle for the US Senate in California? No he isn’t

Is Adam Schiff playing dirty in the battle for the US Senate in California? No he isn’t

Elections 2024, California politics

Mark Z. Barabak

February 7, 2024

Adam B. Schiff has a new TV spot in his bid for U.S. Senate, and to hear the outrage, you’d think he was peddling swampland or calling for the execution of puppies and kittens.

The ad is innocuous enough. Deep voice narrator. Tinkling piano. Varied scenes of a suburban house and a doctor in a white lab coat flash by.

The usual.

“Two leading candidates for the Senate,” the narrator says. “Two very different visions for California.”

Then, who appears on the screen but is sent,


in blue, and Republican Steve Garvey, outlined in red.

The calculation is clear. Schiff hopes to win the Senate seat in the March 5 primary by advancing his weakest possible opponent, Garvey, to a runoff in November.

Cheeky? Sura. Cynical or antidemocratic, as some critics claim? Not a little.

“All’s fair,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who helped write the “pick your opponent” playbook more than two decades ago as he worked to re-elect California’s beleaguered Governor Gray Davis. “The fact is that candidates have to do what they have to do within the context of the individual elections in which they are participating.”

After all, this is politics, not pie.

In California, that means navigating an election system in which the two candidates receive the most votes in the primaries before the general election, regardless of political party.

The ship seems well positioned to take the top spot. That leaves three contenders vying for second place: Garvey and Schiff’s fellow Democratic House members Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.

There are no certainties in life. But Republicans haven’t won a U.S. Senate seat in California since 1988, when “Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway and the USSR still existed.

Garvey’s chances of ending that losing streak are about as good as his prospects, at age 75, of beating Shohei Ohtani in a home run-hitting contest. Hence Schiff’s enthusiasm to meet him in November.

Porter, who appears to have the biggest competition with Garvey for the No. 1. 2 spot, responded to Schiff’s TV spot with an outraged statement and by throwing down the gender card. Schiff not only boosts a Republican, Porter stewed on X, but also ‘boxes out qualified Democratic female candidates’.

Hours later, former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer endorsed Schiff. She had planned to remain neutral in the contest, but said she changed her mind in part because of Porter’s “unwarranted sharp attacks” on Schiff and inference that the Burbank congressman was misogynistic. (The headline “Boxer Rejects Claim of ‘Boxing'” writes itself.)

It may be piecemeal, but Schiff’s move is no longer particularly novel.

In 2002, South helped sabotage Davis’ most feared Republican rival.


Riordan, by resurrecting an old cable TV interview in which

the former mayor of LA

described abortion as murder. The ad undermined Riordan’s moderate image and helped Davis’ favorite opponent, the more conservative Bill Simon Jr., win the Republican Party primaries. He then lost to Davis in the fall.

A top Schiff campaign adviser, Larry Grisolano, worked on that gubernatorial contest. “He hasn’t just seen this movie before,” South said. “He helped direct it.”

Since then, other candidates have pursued similar meddlesome strategies.

Perhaps best known is that in 2012, in Missouri, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill poured millions into TV ads aimed at elevating her favorite opponent, the hapless Todd Aiken, in the Republican primaries.

McCaskill, who was re-elected in a landslide, later explained how it worked. The ads, she wrote in her autobiography, made it seem like I was trying to disqualify him, even though, as we know, if you call someone too conservative in a Republican primary, you’re giving them a badge of honor… Our phones were ringing red hot and people said, ‘Just because she tells me not to vote for him, I’m voting for him.'”

Schiff’s ad takes a similar approach, calling Garvey too conservative for California and noting that he voted for Donald Trump twice, inviting Republicans to act on Garvey’s behalf and push him past Porter and Lee on March 5 Push.

Say what you want. The 30-second spot is factual and Schiff is not hiding behind an independent expenditure campaign or using “dark money,” i.e. untraceable campaign funds, to pay for it.

Voters have a choice. If they are put off by Schiff’s tactics and feel that his focusing on Garvey is somehow unconscionable, they may vote against him.

Porter insists in her response ad, ridiculing Garvey and Schiff as “typical politicians” and reiterating her vow to be a force for change and a fighter in Washington and the Senate.

But if it’s a fighter Democrats want, perhaps they’ll appreciate a candidate who doesn’t push the envelope.


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