Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, from left.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (center) has raised millions more than Reps. Barbara Lee (left) and Katie Porter, his Democratic rivals in California’s 2024 U.S. Senate race.
(Los Angeles Times)
Civic Life

California’s U.S. Senate contest is on — and it’s coming to Santa Cruz next week

After more than 30 years, Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat is opening up. Over the next week, the spirited battle to win the Democratic primary comes to Santa Cruz, with appearances by House members Katie Porter and Adam Schiff; Rep. Barbara Lee is expected by year’s end. It’s an unusual stretch for Santa Cruz as Schiff and Porter converge for fundraisers — and the voter appraisal of who can best represent California going forward.

Over the past 30 years, it has been rare for deep-blue California to have a meaningful primary for a U.S. Senate seat, even rarer that candidates in the race come through Santa Cruz — neither Kamala Harris or Loretta Sanchez made local appearances during their 2016 bout.

The March 5, 2024, primary will be an exception. Rep. Katie Porter, of Orange County, will attend a campaign fundraiser at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Cruz on Sunday; opponent Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank is scheduled to appear just two days later, at a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee (DCC) on Tuesday. Porter, Schiff and Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee — whose team told the local DCC the congresswoman is committed to making an appearance here before year’s end — have emerged as the marquee choices among the 26 names racing to replace Democratic stalwart Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will step down next year after 32 years in the seat. (Pete Wilson, in 1988, was the most recent Republican to convince Californians he was worthy of a seat in Congress’ upper house.)

That Santa Cruz County will welcome two prominent Senate candidates in rapid succession is a bit coincidental. In what voters have come to see as classic Porter fashion, she has folded parental duties into her candidate ones: The former UC Irvine professor’s son is interested in attending UC Santa Cruz, former local DCC chair Coco Raner-Walter said.

Andrew Goldenkranz, who currently leads the county’s DCC, said Schiff’s appearance is, in part, to make up for a canceled video call he was recently scheduled to have with committee members. Goldenkranz, after dozens of calls to the campaign, said he suggested cashing the rain check with an in-person visit; Schiff’s team proposed using it as a fundraiser for the local DCC.

Each of the three candidates carries their own bit of earned recognition among voters.

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Since her election to Congress in 2018, Porter has been known to arm herself with a whiteboard during House committee hearings to visually break down thorny policy points. She has shown a fearlessness in taking financial institutions to task and a sharp intellect in simplifying complex economic issues in the fashion of her old Harvard Law School professor Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Schiff, first elected to the House in 2000, rose to prominence as a leader during the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump and has taken on the defense of democracy as a foundational piece of his platform. Lee, representing Alameda County since her election in 1998, has long held strong progressive Democrat support, especially in the Bay Area. Her national profile first rose when she took a strong and contrarian stand in voting against the 2003 Iraq invasion (Schiff voted in favor).

U.S. Reps. Katie Porter (left) and Adam Schiff.
(Via Facebook, Instagram)

Most local politicos I spoke with believe the field represents a blessing of riches, and the candidates offer California a win-win-win situation.

As opposed to a race for one of 52 House of Representative seats in California, choosing a senator — especially in a state as large as California — deals largely with one’s opinion on national issues such as reproductive rights, gun control, climate change and racial justice.

Peggy Flynn, a local Democratic activist who is organizing Porter’s visit but has not publicly endorsed a candidate, said there can be a local lens through which voters can view this race.

“For me, it’s the climate, it’s the environment,” Flynn said. “Most of our local pollution comes from transportation, and we often have to look for federal dollars to fund our programs. We only have two senators, so it’s especially important that we choose someone who can represent California well.”

For individual voters, the candidates’ appearances offer a chance to listen for alignment with their platform and understand what they can bring to the table. However, Goldenkranz also views visits by Porter, Schiff and, eventually, Lee as a chance to inform the candidates about hyperlocal issues such as coastal erosion and resiliency, the Pajaro River levee, and housing challenges. Whoever wins, this helps to ensure Santa Cruz County is not starting from square one after a new senator is sworn in.

“We’ve got three great candidates and our job is to expose the local community to all three of them,” Goldenkranz said. “But there are local issues that are important to bring to the candidates so they can learn more as well. We have our story to tell, and that’s more about relationship-building because whoever gets elected is going to need to help us out.”

None of the local Democratic organizations I spoke with yet offered any sense on plans to endorse. Santa Cruz County’s DCC is required to endorse whomever the statewide DCC chooses, and the six local clubs tied to the DCC will fall in line lest they risk their charter — College Democrats at UC Santa Cruz, Democratic Club of North Santa Cruz County, Democratic Women’s Club of Santa Cruz County, Mid-County Democratic Club, Pajaro Valley César Chavez Democratic Club and the People’s Democratic Club of Santa Cruz County. However, if the statewide committee cannot come to consensus, each of those organizations will get the opportunity to endorse the candidate of its own choosing.

Joy Schendledecker, co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Santa Cruz chapter, said DSA has not held a caucus, but she suspects growing support for Lee, who she says has been a “champion for the people for a very long time.”

“She’s been very consistent and principled,” Schendledecker said. “Schiff seems like an average Democrat. Porter is a firebrand and I really appreciate her energy and the way she’s spoken out against attempts of the far right to control people’s reproductive health care. But she doesn’t have the long history that Lee does. I would love to see a Black woman who has spoken out for decades advance to that seat.”

Bodie Shargel, a member of UCSC’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, similarly believes the student vote will swing toward Porter or Lee.

“Young people are excited by candidates who are progressive on social and economic issues — people I know on the left would be bummed if Schiff won,” Shargel said. “People appreciate the work he’s done on holding Trump accountable. It would be unfair to minimize that. But I think students are more concerned with how someone will end up voting. Will they go in and move money from the military budget to programs that benefit the working class? Will they not just vote for but take a strong stand in pursuit of Medicare for all? Will they support free college tuition?”

Goldenkranz said he can see the race going in any direction — it will just come down to priorities.

“People who prioritize expanded health care access, cleaning up the tax code and economic issues, I think you’ll see them go for Porter,” Goldenkranz said. “With the ongoing trials of Trump trying to overthrow the election, people who want to prioritize defending democracy will probably go for Schiff. With Lee, I think a lot of people on the left want to see a woman of color with experience successfully working across communities and economic groups and bringing the Bay Area together.”

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