Monday night’s debate among California U.S. Senate candidates could have been mistaken for an ice cream social: Positive, upbeat and genial.

For about twenty minutes. 

After that, Democratic Congress members Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, and former Los Angeles Dodger and San Diego Padre ballplayer Steve Garvey, a Republican, began to spar in earnest.

Though the campaign teams will fight to declare themselves winners in the debate, what mattered most is whether or not Garvey, Lee or Porter, gained ground toward a top-two spot in the primary, and therefore a spot in the general election — a particular challenge for Lee and Porter, who, like Schiff, hew toward progressive positions.

What You Need To Know

  • Four candidates for California's U.S. Senate seat took to the debate stage at the University of Southern California on Monday, about six weeks away from the state's 2024 primary election

  • Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, all Democrats, fielded policy and position questions alongside Republican candidate Steve Garvey, best known for his 19 year baseball career spent in Los Angeles in San Diego

  • Lee fought to connect with voters through her background and progressive bonafides, Schiff pushed back against Trumpist ideals and Porter knocked Washington politics as usual; Garvey was attacked by his opponents on all sides, painting himself as a moderate conservative with few detailed policy positions

  • California's primary election takes place on March 5; the top two vote getters in the primary, regardless of party, will move on to the 2024 general election in November

Monday night's debate at the University of Southern California was hosted by POLITICO, Fox 11 Los Angeles and the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for the Political Future. Despite the fact that there are more than two dozen candidates who have declared for the race, Schiff, Garvey, Lee and Porter qualified for the debate based on a recent POLITICO / Morning Consult poll.  

According to a Jan. 18 poll published by Emerson College, Schiff, holding 25% support of voters, is the clear leader among the four top candidates, with Garvey (18%), Porter (13%) and Lee (8%) trailing behind.

Lee, at the back of the pack, had the most work to do Monday night — and she recognized that, seeking to get a word in at any edge she could find.

Despite her quarter-century career in Congress, support for her campaign outside of her Oakland district is relatively slight. Her campaign has consistently been an effort to connect to voters through her background: facing racial discrimination growing up; having an abortion at 15; escaping an abusive marriage to experience homelessness as a mother of two young children. She frequently sought to pop those points in and around her responses to moderator questions, even as she impressed her progressive record.

Of the four candidates on the stage, Lee positioned herself as the most anti-war, citing both her record as the only member of Congress to vote against the war in Iraq, and her repeated call for a cease-fire in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

"The only way Israel is going to be secure is through a permanent cease-fire…yet I do believe we have to see the endgame, and it should be a two-state solution," Lee said. "Killing 25,000 civilians, it’s catastrophic and will never lead to peace for the Israelis nor the Palestinians."

Schiff and Porter hewed more moderately than Lee. Porter echoed Lee’s call for a cease-fire, as well as a two-state solution, though she added that there were necessary conditions: releasing all hostages and providing Gaza resources for rebuilding.

"Cease-fire is not a magic word. You can’t just say it and make it so," she said.

Meanwhile, Schiff said that, while he supports a two-state solution, Israel "has to defend itself," and that Hamas can’t be left governing Gaza when the war is over: "I don’t know how you can ask for any nation to cease fire when their people are being held by a terrorist organization."

Garvey took the most conservative stance, immediately stating that he stands with Israel "yesterday, today and tomorrow," though he avoided responding to a the moderator asking if there’s a number of innocent Palestinian deaths that would move him to pull support from Israel.

"It’s naive to think that we can ask our government to tell them, we’re trying to influence them to cease-fire," Garvey said. He also, upon pressure from Lee and Porter, stated that he feels it’s "naive to think that a two-state solution can happen."

Garvey played first base almost exclusively throughout his 19 year Major League Baseball career. But Monday night, he may have been wishing for catcher’s gear. When asked why he hasn’t yet released policy specifics, Garvey spoke in generalities, saying that he was taking "strong positions" instead of getting granular.

Of the four candidates on stage, Garvey was most frequently asked by both the moderators and his fellows alike to clarify his responses, clarify his positions and to answer questions he tried to maneuver around.

Or, as Porter put it when Garvey deflected on if he would vote for Donald Trump again in the 2024 presidential election: "Well California, I think what they say is true. Once a dodger, always a dodger,

Garvey refused to clarify, insisting that his vote is a "personal choice" while insisting that America was safer under Trump than President Joe Biden. ("I heard it said that Trump was terrible for the world," Garvey said. "Yeah, he was," Lee sniped.)

He did, however, go on the defensive, accusing his opponents of playing "identity politics" and "trying to paint [him] in a corner."

"You’re banging on that trash can just like the Astros did a few years ago," he said, referencing the Houston team's 2017 cheating scandal to audible groans.

Schiff pushed back, arguing that Trump’s foreign policy plans included attempting to peel away from the NATO alliance and developing relationships with strongman dictators.

"Can you imagine what would have taken place if Trump was president when Putin invaded and Ukraine needed our help?" he said. "There is no stretch of the imagination, no scenario, no whatever, in which we would be safer."

Schiff continued his strategy of standing against Trump and far-right Republicans, while also arguing that he has a "record of getting things done."

In a group of candidates with a mind for policy specifics (and, as Schiff described Garvey, "a hell of a ballplayer"), Schiff may have taken the most time pushing details in his responses — rolling out tax incentives for affordable housing, developing wrap-around services for people who are unhoused and need assistance, impressing the need for surging personnel to ease pressure in immigration proceedings, and bragging about his record of prosecuting oil companies while discussing his climate bonafides. 

That was Porter’s opening to poke at the frontrunner.

"Rep. Schiff may have prosecuted big oil companies before he came to Congress," Porter said. "But when he got to Congress, he cashed checks from companies like BP, from fossil fuel companies. I have delivered results on climate in my few years in Congress," referring to legislation raising rates on polluters that signed into the Inflation Reduction Act.

"First of all, I gave that money to you Katie Porter, and all I heard was thank you," Schiff replied.

"I didn't realize how much dirty money you took until I was running against you," Porter fired back.

Washington, Porter said repeatedly, is "broken" — throughout her responses, Porter struck at corporate lobbying of Congress, and how the practice affects everyday Americans. "We have housing policy that is being written by career politicians who cater to their big bank donors," she said. "What we need is housing policy that works for us, housing policy that is centered on our needs…and we are not going to get there if we let Wall Street write our housing policy."

Porter adopted "Shake Up the Senate" as her campaign tagline, and she positioned herself as a fresh, yet experienced, face. She knocked her longer-tenured colleagues for having victories in certain spaces (like housing) "decades and decades ago," and decried earmarks (or "directed spending requests") as tools for corruption.

"Earmark is just a fancy word for Washington politicians substituting their personal interests…for what our needs are," she said. "We know that Congressman Schiff hasn’t solved homelessness in L.A., and Congresswoman Lee hasn’t solved the challenges in Oakland. It’s going to take more than earmarks to do that."

Lee said that it would be a "dereliction of duty to my constituents if I did not fight for every single dollar that I could find," and that earmark programs may not have solved every problem, but they’ve "filled in the gaps," providing healthcare for communities of color, shelters for LGBTQ+ youth, and housing nonprofits that don’t have the money to write proposals. "So I’ll support earmarks in the Senate and bring home as much money, federal dollars, to California as I can."

California's primary election takes place on March 5, with vote-by-mail ballots expected to arrive in mailboxes the first week of February.