Forget Dodgers vs. Giants. Schiff’s Senate is bringing about a ‘paradigm shift’ in California’s north-south divide

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Forget Dodgers vs. Giants. Schiff’s Senate is bringing about a ‘paradigm shift’ in California’s north-south divide

California Politics, 2024 Elections

Mark Z. Barabak

March 14, 2024

For a long time, life in California had certain rhythms.

Winter snow in the Sierra. Spring blossoms in the desert. And election season comes with a built-in, often insurmountable advantage for Bay Area candidates seeking statewide office.

The drifts have been piling up, from Tahoe to the Tehachapis. Months of rainfall promise a beautiful display of flowers in the Southland. But that Northern California advantage? It disappeared during the March 5 US Senate election.

Representative Adam


Schiff, whose Southern California district is more than 300 miles away, easily carried the Bay Area to a primary victory over fellow Democrats Katie Porter and the region’s own Barbara Lee. It is very likely that he will win the Senate seat in November against the opponent he helped to a run-off in November, the sacrificial Republican Steve Garvey.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist, said of Schiff’s nine-county Bay Area sweep.

Geography where a candidate calls home used to be an important factor for political success in California. Now it’s largely an afterthought, and that could change campaign calculations forever.

Some were confident that Lee, who has represented Oakland in Sacramento and Washington for more than three decades, would have the upper hand in the closely contested Senate race. She was the only major Democrat from Northern California versus Schiff and Porter, who hail from Orange County.

But Lee did no better than finish third somewhere in the Bay Area, sparing her political base for Alameda County, where she finished second but still lost to Schiff by double digits.

That’s because any regional advantage has apparently been erased by the nationalization of politics, by the ubiquitous reach of social media and, above all, by the star-making power of TV news, which has turned personalities like Schiff into political celebrities far beyond their native area. .

(Schiff also got a big boost from Donald Trump’s childish taunts and criticism from the Republican-led House of Representatives, which not only raised his profile but turned Schiff into a hero to many Democrats.)

Historically, Bay Area candidates have enjoyed an advantage in statewide races because people there tended to be more politically active and more aligned with their elected officials. Residents also showed up in larger numbers


than voters elsewhere in California, offering a lift to the candidates they were most familiar with.

“You almost never hear a conversation about politics standing in line at a Starbucks in Southern California,” said Ace Smith, who has campaigned in the Bay Area and statewide for more than four decades. “But you hear those conversations in Northern California.”

That may be a generalization, but history confirms the essence of what Smith was suggesting. The Bay Area’s longstanding, outsized influence in state politics has boosted the careers of the likes of Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom and Dianne Feinstein, all of whom prevailed over rivals from the more populous southern half of California.

It’s been especially tough for statewide members of the House of Representatives. In over a century, only a handful of people managed to make the leap to the Senate.

That’s because most of them spent their careers in relative anonymity. If you venture a few blocks outside of any of California’s congressional districts, there are 52 of them, spanning 1,000 miles from north to south, and a visiting lawmaker might as well have been a member of the witness protection program.

Raising money, building brand awareness, and scaring a sizable crowd were all tough challenges for any rep who ventured too far from home.

But in recent years, things have changed dramatically. A viral moment or a headline on the Washington chat show circuit, where Schiff appears to be enjoying a semi-permanent residence, could now turn the most obscure congressman into a household name.

You could even say that the road to statewide political success no longer runs through the hills of San Francisco, the plains of Oakland or the vast Silicon Valley.

As Porter, of whiteboard fame, and Schiff have shown, reputations can be built and careers more fruitfully built in Washington’s TV studios, on the House floor, or in the committee rooms where inquisitions are broadcast from Capitol Hill.

Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, once said that a political rally in California consists of three people gathering around a television set. He was referring to the power of advertising, the only effective way to reach voters in a nation-state with tens of millions of voters.

A minor update may be required to reflect technological changes. A television set, you might say, or the smartphone dialers cradled in the palm of their hands.

But Shrum’s general observation about the political power of the small screen rings truer than ever.


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