Friday, February 23, 2024

Column: Is Adam Schiff playing dirty in California’s U.S. Senate race? No, he’s not

Adam B. Schiff is releasing a new TV spot in his bid for U.S. Senate, and to hear the outcry, you’d think he was peddling swamps or calling for the execution of puppies and kittens.

The advertising is quite innocuous. Narrator with deep voice. Tingling piano. Various scenes – a suburban house, a doctor in a white coat – pass by.

The usual.

“Two candidates leading the Senate,” intones the narrator. “Two very different visions of California.”

Then, who appears on the screen but Schiff, embroidered in blue, and Republican Steve Garvey, circled in red.

The calculation is simple. Schiff hopes to clinch the Senate seat in the March 5 primary by elevating his weakest possible opponent, Garvey, in the November runoff.

Cheeky? Of course. Cynical or undemocratic, as some critics claim? No way.

“Everything is fair,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who helped write the choose-your-opponent playbook more than 20 years ago when he worked on the re-election of embattled California Gov. Gray Davis . “The bottom line is that candidates have to do what they have to do in the context of the individual election in which they are running.”

After all, it’s politics. Not pancake cake.

In California, that means navigating an electoral system in which the two candidates with the most votes in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of political party.

Schiff appears well-positioned to clinch the top spot. That leaves three candidates vying for second place: Garvey and Schiff’s Democratic colleagues Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.

There are no certainties in life. But Republicans haven’t won a U.S. Senate seat in California since 1988, when “The Phantom of the Opera” premiered on Broadway and the USSR was still a thing.

Garvey’s chances of ending this losing streak are about as good as his chances, at age 75, of beating Shohei Ohtani in a home run contest. Hence Schiff’s impatience to face him in November.

Porter, who appears to be in closest competition with Garvey for second place, responded to Schiff’s TV spot with an indignant statement and throwing out the gender card. Schiff is not only promoting a Republican, Porter said in favor of X, but he is also “eliminating qualified Democratic female candidates.”

Hours later, former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer endorsed Schiff. She had planned to remain neutral in the contest, but said she changed her mind in part because of Porter’s “unwarranted pointed attacks” on Schiff and the conclusion that the Burbank congressman was a misogynist. (The title – “Boxer Rejects ‘Boxer’ Claim” – writes itself.)

It may be clever, but Schiff’s decision is no longer particularly new.

In 2002, South helped sabotage Davis’s most feared Republican rival, Richard Riordan, by resurfacing an old cable TV interview in which the former Los Angeles mayor called abortion murder. The ad undermined Riordan’s moderate image and helped Davis’ preferred opponent, the more conservative Bill Simon Jr., win the GOP primary. He then lost to Davis in the fall.

One of Schiff’s top campaign advisers, Larry Grisolano, worked on that gubernatorial race. “He hasn’t just seen this movie before,” South said. “He helped make it happen.”

Since then, other candidates have pursued similarly intrusive strategies.

Perhaps most famously, in 2012, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri invested millions in television ads aimed at elevating her favored opponent, the hapless Todd Aiken, in the Republican primary.

McCaskill, who won re-election in a landslide, later explained how it worked. The ads, she wrote in her autobiography, “made it seem like I was trying to disqualify him, although, as we know, when you call someone ‘too conservative’ in a Republican primary, it gives him a badge of honor. … Our phones were ringing off the hook and people were saying, ‘Just because she told me not to vote for him, I’m voting for him.'”

Schiff’s ad takes a similar approach, calling Garvey too conservative for California and noting that he voted twice for Donald Trump — an invitation to Republicans to mobilize on Garvey’s behalf and push him ahead of Porter and Lee on March 5.

Say what you want. The 30-second spot is fact-based and Schiff is not hiding behind an independent spending campaign or using “dark money” – that is, untraceable campaign funds – to finance it.

Voters have a choice. If they are put off by Schiff’s tactics and believe it is unconscionable for him to focus on Garvey, they can vote against him.

Porter highlights this in her response, ridiculing Garvey and Schiff as “typical politicians” and reiterating her vow to be a force for change and a fighter in Washington and the Senate.

But if Democrats want a fighter, they might like a candidate who doesn’t pull his punches.

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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