The sleepy race for U.S. Senate in California jolted awake on Monday evening as the candidates sparred for the first time on stage in Los Angeles, putting on display sharp divisions over congressional spending, money in politics, and the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Although the three House Democrats in the race ― Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee ― agree on many issues, they diverged perhaps most sharply on the question of a cease-fire in the war raging in the Middle East.
Lee, a longtime progressive critic of U.S. interventions in the region, reiterated the need for an immediate cease-fire and criticized Israel’s military campaign in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.
“Killing 25,000 civilians ― it’s catastrophic, and it will never lead to peace for the Israelis, nor the Palestinians,” Lee said, warning about the dangers of a broader war escalating in the Middle East.
The more establishment-aligned Schiff agreed on the need to shield Palestinian civilians but largely backed Israel’s response against Hamas. “I don’t know how you can ask any nation to support a cease-fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization,” he said, referring to the Israel hostages still held by Hamas.
Porter, meanwhile, took a more middle-of-the-road approach, arguing that conditions need to be met before a cease-fire is implemented, including the release of hostages.
“Cease-fire is not a magic word,” the progressive congresswoman said. “You can’t say it and make it so. But we have to push as the United States as a world leader for us to get to a cease-fire.”
The differences between the three candidates mirror shifting attitudes within the Democratic Party to Israel’s military campaign ― which was launched in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed over 1,000 people in Israel. More than 60 Democrats in Congress have called for a cease-fire so far.
But retired baseball star Steve Garvey, the Republican candidate on stage at the University of Southern California, which hosted the debate, firmly backed the war, saying that stands with Israel “yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
The Democratic candidates also traded jabs over congressional spending and money in politics. At one point, Porter called out Schiff, the well-funded polling leader in the race, for accepting money from oil companies.
“Schiff may have prosecuted oil companies before [coming to] Congress, but when he got to Congress, he cashed checks from companies like BP,” Porter said.
Schiff shot back by noting that Porter didn’t seem to mind when she accepted his financial support during her run for Congress. “I gave that money to you, Katie Porter,” he said.
“I didn’t realize how much dirty money you took until I was running against you,” Porter responded.
The Democratic candidates also disagreed on whether to ban earmarks, or federal dollars requested by lawmakers that are often tacked on to legislation for special local projects in their districts. Porter argued that earmarks should be banned because they “invite self-dealing” by lawmakers and breed corruption. Schiff and Lee, meanwhile, called earmarks a valuable tool to bring more federal dollars back to California.
Still, all three Democrats did find plenty to agree on, particularly on the subject of Garvey and his refusal to state whom he planned to support in the November presidential election. Garvey, a first-time political candidate, defended Donald Trump and said he didn’t believe Joe Biden “has been good for this country,” an interesting strategy in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
“This is not the minor leagues. Who will you vote for?” Porter asked Garvey at one point.
Garvey called it a “personal choice” but refrained from giving an answer.
Schiff holds a slight lead in the race, according to a poll conducted earlier this month from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, while Porter and Garvey are battling for second place, and Lee trails behind them.
The “top-two” March 5 California primary will determine which two candidates advance to the November general election, regardless of party.