Progressive stars square off in California Senate primary

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Battle lines are forming between progressives as they look to take down the more establishment-aligned Rep. Adam Schiff in California’s Democratic Senate primary.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) was the latest high-profile progressive to weigh in on the race, endorsing Rep. Barbara Lee (D), who along with Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter (D) is seeking to fill the rare opening created by retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has backed Porter, her longtime ally from academia.

Progressives see the race as a chance to elevate their policy platform as other Democrats shift to the center ahead of 2024, though it’s also once again shining a light on some of the old alliances between those on the left.

“Lee is the closest to what we were trying to accomplish,” said Nina Turner, who co-chaired Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign in 2020 along with Khanna. “I’m not surprised,” she added about the development that some of his boosters are coalescing around the long-standing congresswoman.

Khanna’s endorsement adds a new dimension to the race, with two progressives in the mix. While many California Democrats thought Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, may be eyeing a Senate bid himself, he said that Lee is ultimately the best choice to compete for an elevated role in the upper chamber, and that “the most exciting place” for him, for now, is in the House.

“I’m honored to be co-chairing Barbara Lee’s campaign for the Senate and endorsing her today,” Khanna said in an appearance on CNN, taking on the same title he held for Sanders.

His support made official what has been mounting behind the scenes since the beginning of the primary, where candidates are looking to draw meaningful distinctions despite having much in common.

Lee’s bid has been attracting Sanders’s allies, with former campaign hands weighing new opportunities with the Oakland progressive. Some say they’re drawn to Lee because her progressive bona fides are unique even among those representing the state’s mostly liberal electorate. Khanna mentioned Lee’s “anti-war” record as an asset to the Senate, having stood against the Iraq War when others in her party voted for military action.

Other California progressives point to recent history to indicate what kind of left-wing candidate might be able to catch on in a crowded cycle. In the last presidential nominating contest, both Sanders and Warren competed in the delegate-rich state, where they were also running against several centrists, including then-candidate Joe Biden.

In that primary, Sanders won by a landslide, earning nearly three times the amount of votes as Warren. While the Vermont Independent hasn’t yet weighed in on the Senate race, some are looking to his own past victory in the state for clues on the electorate’s appetite.

“That 2020 Democratic primary is so meaningful because it’s really the only statewide election over the last decade where you had true competition across viable well-funded candidates from all different parts of the political spectrum on the center to the left,” said Joe Sanberg, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur and anti-poverty activist who endorsed Sanders in 2020.

“It tells us a lot about what happens when you put all different kinds of Democrats in front of an electorate,” he said.

Liberals are often accused of veering to the left in primaries, much to the chagrin of moderates, who say that isn’t always practical in swing states and tough districts.

But in California, that’s less of an issue. The seat is expected to be solidly blue, which makes the general election calculus less daunting and provides room for multiple progressives to show degrees of policy nuance.

“In this heavily Democratic state, I’m not worried about losing our Senate seat to the Republicans,” said Michael Kapp, a member of the California Democratic Party’s executive board, who is currently neutral in the race. “But it would be unfortunate if CA Democrats were denied a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a full discussion on which Democratic candidate would be the best to represent California.”

Progressives are focused on making sure that doesn’t happen. Part of the draw for the primary, they say, is to hear the party’s most liberal issues be elevated more visibility than in smaller district or local-level races. The tough part is that Lee and Porter agree on a lot of positions. They both support cracking down on the pharmaceutical industry, transitioning to green energy sources and tightening regulations for banks — which they say could have prevented the most recent failures in Silicon Valley.

Those similarities make it less likely that voters will choose their candidates strictly over substantive differences in policy, rather than turning to other factors when making their decisions, Democrats in the state argue.

“I don’t think there’s much ideological distinction between Congresswomen Lee and Porter,” Sanberg said. “Porter has a ton of enthusiastic backers who voted for Bernie Sanders. I think Lee has a ton of enthusiastic supporters who voted for Elizabeth Warren,” he said, noting that the lines aren’t as clean as the old Sanders-Warren divide.

While Lee’s most recognizable distinction, her foreign policy record, makes her stand out, some on the left say she’ll have to prove that she can define herself in a more robust way, especially when faced against another well-regarded progressive in the House.

“Lee benefits from her reputation as the lone brave congressional vote against the blank check for endless war right after 9/11,” said Norman Solomon, a leading progressive activist in California. “But in recent years, growing numbers of progressive activists in California have become aware of her refusals to strongly challenge foreign-policy bellicosity, especially when a Democrat is in the White House.”

“It remains to be seen whether Lee can convincingly distinguish herself as an independent voice willing to really challenge President Biden on foreign policy. To the extent she stays away from doing so, her ability to make the case that she appreciably differs from Porter will be limited among progressives,” he said.

Indeed, some Democrats say that between the two left-wing choices, Porter may be able to convince more voters she’s poised to take on some of the state’s most current and relevant challenges.

She got an early start and fundraising surge by announcing her campaign ahead of other candidates — well before Feinstein officially said she was retiring — and quickly got Warren’s backing. In the past few weeks, the two Capitol Hill confidants have worked to introduce legislation to help prevent future banking fallouts.

Some progressives close to Warren who supported her presidential campaign and are backing her Senate reelection believe Porter is well-poised to speak about that, having spent considerable time focusing on regulatory and consumer work.

While it’s still early, with nearly a full year until the general election, Porter also has a slight polling advantage over Lee. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month shows that Schiff and Porter have close favorability ratings, with 31 percent and 30 percent respectively among registered voters in the state. Lee comes in lower, at 18 percent.

Still, some caution that Porter has a way to go in some parts of the state. While she’s become more visible in the Orange County district that she represents, she’s a lesser-known entity in other areas.

“Aside from her impressive whiteboard performances, Porter is not well known in Northern California,” said Solomon, noting one area where she could fall behind.

Other Democrats argue, however, that there’s plenty of time to establish name recognition and crystalize positions. And while Porter and Lee are both working to develop their pathways, Schiff is also a viable contender who voters know from his grilling of Republicans aligned with former President Trump, as well as his regular media appearances.

“We have three candidates with strong Democratic credentials,” said Kapp, emphasizing that it’s not just a two-person primary.

Amie Parnes contributed.

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