What’s at stake in tonight’s California Senate debate

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The stage has been set for another meeting of the minds in the second California Senate debate Monday night.

U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Los Angeles Dodgers legend Steve Garvey will be sparring over the issues and trying to make themselves stand out in a crowded field.

The four leading candidates are all looking to fill the seat previously filled by longtime Democrat powerhouse Dianne Feinstein, who died in September 2023 after serving in the Senate for more than three decades.

Her seat in the U.S. Senate is currently being occupied by Laphonza Butler, who was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to serve in an interim capacity until the voters could weigh in and elect their next U.S. senator.

Feinstein’s death leaves California in an unfamiliar spot in one of the most high-profile statewide elections in years.

KTLA 5 News spoke with Jim Newton, lecturer in communications and public policy at UCLA and editor of UCLA Blueprint, to discuss what’s at stake in this history-making election.

For one, whoever fills Feinstein’s seat will have large shoes to fill, both as a member of the U.S. Senate and as a voice in their respective political party.

“Feinstein was among the most respected members of Congress in either house, in my lifetime,” Newton said. “And so losing her and her experience is significant for California.”

Feinstein had one of the longest tenures in the Senate and seniority in the chamber brings with it major influence. Whoever wins her seat in November won’t have that luxury.

“Even a very capable senator to replace Feinstein will have to kind of start the clock over again, in terms of seniority,” Newton said. “So in that sense, California has lost a historic representative, and the next person won’t be that, at least right away.”

Who is Steve Garvey, the former MLB player running for Senate?

In some ways, though, at least politically, Newton doesn’t expect a whole lot to change if the state elects another Democrat, which he says is far and away the most likely outcome.

Another Democratic senator would however likely land slightly left of Feinstein on the political spectrum, which may be a welcome sight to Californians in 2024.

“California is more liberal than she was,” Newton said. “So in that sense, it may align the ideological position of California a little more closely to its representation.”

Candidates, from left, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and former baseball player Steve Garvey, stand on stage during a televised debate for candidates in the senate race to succeed the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, on Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Candidates, from left, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and former baseball player Steve Garvey, stand on stage during a televised debate for candidates in the senate race to succeed the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, on Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)

While Newton expects a relatively easy win for the Democrats come November, the March primary is where things could get interesting.

Schiff, Porter and Lee, the three leading Democrats, will most assuredly siphon votes off from one another which would give the most high-profile Republican a chance to advance in a runoff.

“If Republicans consolidated around Garvey, you could imagine him getting 30% or so of the vote. So he could even finish first, in the first round,” Newton said. “The problem for him is the second round.”

A united Democratic front, with additional help from registered Independents, likely leaves Garvey with little chance of winning in November. Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in California since 2006. The last time the party won a U.S. Senate race was Pete Wilson’s re-election bid in 1988.

Although left of Feinstein, Schiff, who recent polling shows is the frontrunner, will have his own battles with his fellow party members both in March and possibly in November.

Porter and Lee are considered to be the more progressive options for the Democrats and, although Newton believes Schiff would probably come out on top in a runoff against either of them, he won’t rule out an upset.

“Porter or Lee might sort of catch fire and run a progressive campaign to Schiff’s left, and that might pose a danger for him in the runoff,” he said.

So how do the three Democrats stand out in Monday’s debate?

Newton expects Porter to bank on her values and her refusal of corporate campaign contributions as she tries to “cast herself as the only populist, economic liberal, the only one to stand against money.”

For Lee, expect her to pitch herself in a “biographical way,” Newton said, someone who has overcome countless challenges in her life.

“She has been homeless, she’s raised children on her own, she’s experienced discrimination in ways that the other two just haven’t,” he said. “So I think that hers is a more personal way of distinguishing herself from the field.”

And for Schiff, staying on message as the mainstream Democrat seems like the obvious path to take.

Newton expects the three Democrats to try and pitch themselves to voters while going after Garvey, rather than each other.

Crucial Porter-Garvey clash could headline Monday’s U.S. Senate debate

The sole Republican on stage, Garvey will likely be challenged often. He’s already drawn some ire after he refused to say if he would vote for President Joe Biden or Donald Trump in the November General election, prompting Porter to taunt him with, “Once a Dodger, always a Dodger.”

Newton hopes Garvey will come with answers to Monday’s debate, rather than try to walk the tightrope between not angering his Trump-leaning base while running a campaign with broader appeal.

“I just don’t know what Steve Garvey stands for, or why he’s running in this race,” Newton said. “He’s asking people to invest their confidence in him and for him to represent their views in Washington, but he won’t say what his own views are.”

Newton expects that one of the Democrats on stage will eventually be California’s next senator, but unless two Democrats are in the runoff, that result remains uncertain.

“You get into a runoff, you’re one out of two, something can always happen, right?” he said. “The candidate can say something just astronomical, can just ball up. So it’s not crazy to think that there might be something so disruptive, that you end up backing into the Senate seat.”

The hourlong live debate takes place Monday, Feb, 12 starting at 7 p.m. and will be moderated by Inside California Politics hosts Frank Buckley and Nikki Laurenzo.

Viewers can watch the debate on any of these Nexstar California TV stations or websites: KRON in San Francisco, KTLA in Los Angeles, KSWB in San Diego, KTXL in Sacramento, KSEE in Fresno and KGET in Bakersfield.

Viewers can join the conversation by using the hashtag #CASenDebate.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to KTLA.