How Trump propelled Schiff to the general election — and likely a Senate seat

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For all of California’s ills and hardships, nothing animated the state’s left-leaning electorate in this year’s Senate race more than the specter of former President Trump returning to the White House.

The omnipresence of Trump’s legal travails and his dominance in the Republican presidential primary ensure his shadow over the 2024 election will remain through November, and only increase Rep. Adam B. Schiff ‘s already heady chances of becoming California’s newest U.S. senator.

As the lead prosecutor in the first impeachment trial of Trump in the House of Representatives, the Burbank Democrat — once mocked by the former president as a “little pencil neck” — used Trump’s animus to propel himself to national fame and a top-two finish in California’s competitive Senate primary election on Tuesday.

Schiff already has signaled plans to use the ample contempt for Trump among most California voters to skewer his opponent in November, Republican and former Dodgers star Steve Garvey, as a Trump acolyte.

“He has received that national attention because he was the face of the resistance when Trump got elected,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), who endorsed Schiff.

“He always got the headline because he said this right thing.”

That notoriety helped Schiff best two Democratic rivals, Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland, in the race to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had represented California in the Senate since 1992. Schiff and Garvey, a political neophyte who nevertheless was the most prominent Republican running, were the top two finishers in the primary, sending them to a one-on-one contest in the November general election.

A recent Times poll found that Schiff starts with a significant lead in a two-way matchup, 53% to 38%, with 9% undecided.

Garvey faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge in a state where no Republican has won a statewide race since 2006 and where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin. In California, President Biden trounced Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Garvey, a former first baseman for the Dodgers and San Diego Padres, voted for Trump that year and in 2016, and now will have to reckon with his past support of the former president. Garvey has yet to disclose whether he voted for Trump in this year’s presidential primary.

It’s a balancing act for politicians in much of the country, but in a state like California, it’s born of necessity — millions of the state’s GOP voters are stalwart supporters of the former president, but they are grossly outnumbered.

While California is home to more registered Republicans than any other state in the nation, it is also home to many GOP voters who are moderates, college-educated and suburban women — the electoral blocs that have sometimes blanched at Trump’s antics and policies. When Trump was on the ballot in 2016, Orange County voters chose a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since the Great Depression.

Asked how Garvey voted in Tuesday’s presidential primary, Garvey’s spokesman Matt Shupe repeatedly said, “You’ll have to ask him.”

In his limited public campaign events, Garvey highlighted his affable demeanor while raising concerns shared by many Californians about issues such as homelessness, crime and inflation. He avoided the inflammatory language favored by the former president. During appearances on conservative media, Garvey made sharper statements, such as on Sunday when he said on Fox News, “Really, the true war is the war against America by illegal immigrants.”

That line of attack is expected to be central to Garvey’s campaign, but, while it may rally Republicans and play to the audiences of conservative news outlets, it’s unlikely to sway enough California Democrats.

Political attacks from the left, however, may wipe some of the luster off Schiff’s powerhouse campaign.

During the primary campaign, Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 and the ensuing invasion of Gaza by Israel created an opening for Schiff’s opponents to use the issue to differentiate themselves from the rest of the field.

Lee quickly called for an unconditional cease-fire, while Porter took a more middle-ground position. Schiff refused to call for something similar — instead supporting the Biden administration’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution to end the war.

It’s an opinion that angered some Californians, including voters like Camilo Rafel Pineda, 25, who lay in wait at the Schiff victory party Tuesday night, and when the politician took the stage, he let Schiff know it. He yelled, “Let Gaza live,” so loudly that he became hoarse. After he had been escorted out, he told The Times that it was important people knew the incredible human cost to this war and this country’s complicity in the deaths.

Pineda, who is Jewish, said he and many of his friends voted for Lee.

He pointed to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s support of candidates this election as one of the reasons Lee failed to launch and Schiff did. The Jewish American group’s political arm plowed $5 million into a super PAC supporting Schiff. That group was one of several that spent close to $21 million this primary attacking Porter and boosting Garvey.

The money meant a candidate like Lee had little chance, Pineda said. His showing up, he said, was essential so that Schiff, who is Jewish, knew how the policies he supported affected women and children in the Gaza Strip.

Israel “is using the cover of Jewish identity to commit genocide on Palestinian women and children,” Pineda said. “Schiff needs to hear that as much as possible.”

Ultimately it was older voters and not Pineda’s peers who showed up in droves to vote. About 45% of the returned ballots came from voters older than 65, according to Political Data Inc., a campaign research company.

Garvey has also said he opposed a cease-fire and backed Israel’s response. Unlike Schiff, who believes the United States should be working toward a two-state solution, Garvey said the prospect of that is “naive, because one of those states will always try to annihilate Israel.”

During the primary race, Schiff’s campaign spent close $25 million on advertising overwhelming the airwaves with the message that Garvey was “too conservative for California” and that Schiff had taken on the tough fights with Trump.

Each of the Democratic candidates did their best to burnish the bona fides about who would be the best bulwark against the former president.

Still, Schiff presented as the most forceful foil of Trump — who regularly called Schiff out at rallies and insulted him on social media. Voters regularly saw Schiff on cable news after developments in Trump’s various legal sagas.

“The biggest issue that people are looking at, especially as we set up this Trump-Biden rematch is that our democracy is on the ballot, and that is what Adam is all about.” said political strategist Erica Kwiatkowski Nielsen, who helped run Standing Strong, a super PAC that backed Schiff.

“That trumps everything else and that was so much a part of setting up this contrast with Garvey. We know that is going to be what the general election will look like and he was trying to run away from his record of not being for Trump even though he is.”

In rallies across the state, Schiff talked about his fights with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee almost as much as he talked about homelessness or climate change.

During a campaign rally at a Burbank union hall Monday, Schiff paraphrased former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying, “there are times when you can judge a person by the enemies they have made.”

“By Roosevelt’s standard, I’m doing pretty damn well,” he said.

Mark Lampert and his daughter came to a campaign event in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco over the weekend, hoping to get a chance to meet the Burbank congressman.

Lampert watched Trump’s first impeachment trial religiously and came away impressed with Schiff’s willingness to stand up to Trump.

He said he hopes Schiff is elected for one reason: “I worry about Donald Trump.”

Porter, Schiff’s most formidable Democratic rival, tried to chip away at that image of Schiff, assailing him for taking money from corporate political action committees. She called this money “dirty” and emblematic of why voters despised career politicians. This dovetailed with how she framed the race, as a contest about generational change in which she was going to “shake up Washington.”

But it appeared to have little impact.

On Sunday, Porter hosted a capacity crowd at Manny’s, a community space and cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, which included Anthony Lepe, 67. His wife supported Porter, but he was leaning Schiff —and it had mostly to do with following the lawyer throughout the Trump years.

“He stood up to Trump,” Lepe said. “That’s the most important thing we need now.”

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