California’s leading U.S. Senate candidates took to the stage Monday night in San Francisco for a second round of debating as voters weigh their choices for the March 5 primary.
The debate at Nexstar Media Group’s KRON 4 studio moderated by the “Inside California Politics” program’s Frank Buckley and Nikki Laurenzo featured Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland, and Republican former Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres star Steve Garvey of Palm Desert.
The brisk-paced debate peppered the candidates with questions on many of the same issues they were confronted with at their first debate Jan. 22 at the University of Southern California — the economy and high cost of living, homelessness, crime, border control, aid for foreign wars, former President Donald Trump.
Here are some key takeaways:
Will the debate change the race?
Recent polls, including one following the last debate, have consistently put Schiff in the lead, with Porter and Garvey neck and neck for second place and Lee not far behind. The two candidates with the most voters March 5, regardless of party, will compete for the seat in the November election.
But a shakeup seems unlikely. The candidates gave sometimes spirited responses but didn’t stray from the messages they’ve honed on the campaign trail and in the last debate.
A few jabs from candidates, cutting questions from moderators
With the exception of Lee, the other leading candidates tried to slip in a few jabs at one another, but there were no colorful or memorable zingers.
Asked about age limits for politicians, Porter took a poke at frontrunner Schiff for having voted against age limits for Congress but urging for them for the Supreme Court. Schiff shot back that there’s a difference because justices have lifetime appointments and said he favors “term limits, not age limits” for them. He then offered that “I get things done” but “you can’t walk through Congress without running into people who say I’m going to get things done” — a critique he’s leveled at Porter.
Garvey blasted his Democratic rivals as “three career politicians that have failed the people” on housing affordability.
But the moderators landed the biggest zingers with their questions. They asked Porter why she waited until last week to introduce a plan to make housing more affordable. Not satisfied with her answer that “we had several important hearings about housing costs but Washington isn’t listening to Californians,” they asked again “why did you wait until just last week, you’ve been in congress more than five years?”
They asked Schiff why the number of homeless people in his district has climbed while its population hasn’t changed, to which he said he was “proud I brought funding to the district to provide housing” but conceded it “certainly take more than one congressman’s effort to address homelessness.”
The moderators repeatedly asked Garvey to explain which housing regulations he’d do away with to make homes more affordable, and continued to press the question, revealing his lack of deep knowledge when he replied nonspecifically, “regulations on housing.”
And they went after Lee’s call for a $50 minimum wage, or $100,000 a year, asking “is that sustainable?” to which she replied “I’ve got to be focused on what California needs.”
Moderators pressed candidates to answer their questions
For the second debate, the moderators sought to pin the candidates down with answers to specific questions, and frequently followed up reminding the candidates of the question when they delivered rambling responses.
Did it work? Sometimes. When moderators asked Lee whether progressive crime policies went too far and led to rising crime in places like her Oakland district, she initially responded that “enhanced sentences don’t reduce crime” and that “everyone wants public safety, everyone wants their communities to be safe” and talked about banning assault weapon guns and federal partnerships. The moderators asked again, “did progressive reforms go too far?”
“No,” Lee said.
The moderators posed a question Garvey tried to avoid in the last debate about whether he’d accept an endorsement from Trump, who’s unpopular among California voters generally but popular with Republicans.
“I think the biggest currency we have as Americans is the right to vote, and I hope this puts to an end the constant badgering and use of the former president’s name to attack me,” Garvey said.
Asked again if he’d spoken to Trump and would accept his endorsement, Garvey said “I haven’t spoken to him, and I hope you would accept that I have personal choices.”
Moderators noted Schiff hasn’t urged a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and if that meant he disagreed with President Joe Biden pushing for a pause in the fighting.
Schiff said Hamas “wanted this kind of response” when it attacked Israeli civilians and that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
“At same time, the president is right to be pressing Israel to try to avoid killing civilians and to bring about a humanitarian pause so we can get aid in and hostages out.”
Asked again if he disagreed with Biden, Schiff said “I certainly agree with president we have to do everything to reduce civilian casualties, he’s right to try to get this pause.”
Similarly, when Porter was asked if there can be peace with Hamas in Gaza, she said “any peace should come with release of hostages as well as commitments by the U.S. and Israel to rebuild Gaza.” When pressed on Hamas, she added that “we should be pushing for bilateral cease fire” and that the only way to do that “is with different leadership of Gaza.”
Some fun tidbits
It probably won’t swing any voters but the moderators probed the candidates on their movie and book choices. Lee’s favorite movie was “The Color Purple,” Garvey’s “The Natural,” Schiff’s “The Big Lebowski,” and Porter’s “Star Wars.”
For their last book read, Lee’s was Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Garvey’s was Os Guinness’ “The Case for Civility,” Schiff’s was Ron Chernow’s “Grant” and Porter’s was Helen Klein Ross’ “The Latecomers.”