The Big Money Bets on Adam Schiff

On Monday night, at the second debate for California’s open U.S. Senate seat, Rep. Katie Porter (D) accused her colleague Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of a form of gerrymandering to create an easy path to victory in November. “As Mr. Schiff well knows … we have elections in deeply blue districts where there really aren’t competitive elections. In fact, he’s hoping that this Senate race turns into one with his ads that he’s running right now.”

Porter is referring to Schiff’s first campaign ad, where he contrasts himself with Steve Garvey, the former baseball star and the main Republican in the race. The ad notes that Garvey “voted for Trump twice, and supported Republicans for years, including far-right conservatives.”

Porter’s point is that Schiff, who leads in most polling and has the most money to spend in the March 5 primary—more than five times his closest competitor—is effectively lending part of his war chest to Garvey to help him consolidate the Republican vote and advance to the general election, which Schiff believes, not without reason, that he can win in a cakewalk once Garvey is his opponent. (In California’s “jungle primary,” candidates of all parties appear on the same ballot, and the top two finishers move on to the November runoff. Schiff’s move to boost Garvey is intended to make sure he doesn’t face a fellow Democrat—Porter—in the runoff.)

That’s not the only tactic Schiff and his allies are using in his bid to succeed the late Dianne Feinstein in the Senate. Just about every tactic that centrists and Republicans have used to upend Democratic primaries in the past several years is being used to support Schiff, from banking pro-Israel and crypto funds in their treasury to their effort to use cold cash to select an opponent. Porter is now swimming upstream in a race where a number of forces that have intervened to influence the will of Democratic voters have come together.

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Garvey, with only around $300,000 in cash on hand by the end of last year to run a race in a state of 39 million people, has no way to broadcast his message across the state. In the debates, the only high-profile earned media of the cycle, Garvey has been reluctant to say whether he would support Trump again, and has tried to carve out a moderate Republican stance on various issues.

That message would likely fail to sway a deep-blue state like California that hasn’t selected a Republican for statewide office since Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. But it also wouldn’t attract enough primary support from the relatively hard-right Republican base in California to consolidate the field, as other hard-right, no-money candidates are running.

Schiff’s widely aired attack on Garvey is meant to remake him in the image of a MAGA supporter, so the Republican base will be comfortable with voting for him. Schiff’s campaign has also sent mailers to Republican households boosting Garvey. But that’s not the only example. A pro-Schiff super PAC is running an anti-Garvey spot on Fox News, even though Schiff himself has called for a Democratic boycott of the network. The ad doesn’t mention Schiff at all, harping instead on Garvey being “too conservative for California” and how he’s “rising quickly in the polls,” a signal to Fox News voters that a vote for Garvey would be meaningful. The expectation is that this will be a seven-figure ad buy.

In the shorthand of political professionals, these are “McCaskill ads,” following the strategy of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who in 2012 ran spots that appeared to condemn Todd Akin’s extremism, but which really sought to widen Akin’s appeal to conservative voters. Essentially, McCaskill succeeded in getting the woefully inept Akin through the GOP primary, after which he said that women victimized by “legitimate rape” never got pregnant, and lost handily that November.

Just about every tactic that centrists and Republicans have used to upend Democratic primaries in the past several years is being used to support Schiff.

In deep-blue California, Garvey would have even less of a chance than Akin did in Missouri, and Schiff sees that as a much easier road than facing Porter in the general election. Polls show Garvey and Porter neck and neck for second place in California’s “top-two” primary. (Progressive Rep. Barbara Lee is also running; polls have shown her consistently in fourth place.)

Other candidates in California have used this tactic to try to make life easier on them in a general election, going back to Gray Davis hand-picking Republican nobody Bill Simon in 2002. Though Porter has condemned it (including in her first ad of the cycle), some mainstream media reporters have called it a reasonable political strategy to maximize success.

But that’s not all Schiff and the forces who want him elected are doing. Democratic Majority for Israel, the pro-Israel super PAC that has become a leading voice in attacking progressives in Democratic primaries, is running print and digital ads on Schiff’s behalf throughout the month, which specifically say that if elected, Schiff will “stand up to members of the anti-Israel ‘Squad’ in Congress.” The adds also say he will reject conditions on Israel military aid and support an expansion of the “Abraham Accords,” the Trump-led deals between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. (Blocking an Israeli accord with Saudi Arabia was one of the rallying cries for Hamas on October 7, according to published reports.)

Last year, Schiff tried to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus, despite a domestic policy record that often contrasted with progressive goals. Now, a super PAC on his behalf states bluntly that he would fight progressives in Washington.

There’s more. As The New York Times reported yesterday, a new crypto super PAC called Fairshake dropped a nearly $3 million ad buy on Porter, attacking her for taking “campaign cash directly from Big Pharma, Big Oil, and the big bank executives.” (The amounts of money shown on-screen to prove this are laughably small—between $500 and $2,900—and clearly come from individual donors who happen to work in these industries.) The spot doesn’t mention crypto at all, but clearly is taking aim at Porter for her pro-regulatory stance and alliance with her former law professor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has been a scourge to crypto.

Crypto PACs were thought to be a thing of the past after disgraced felon Sam Bankman-Fried, the most prolific crypto spender in Democratic primaries last cycle, was convicted on fraud charges. But Fairshake has $80 million in the bank, coming mostly from crypto companies Coinbase and Ripple Labs and right-wing venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Interestingly, a section of Schiff’s website headlining his “affordability agenda” cites crypto as one of the industries where “California is on the forefront of new developments,” stating that “we need to develop comprehensive regulatory frameworks to ensure that these companies and jobs stay here and grow here, and that the United States remains the global leader in these important new technologies.” That statement could be taken right from a crypto lobbyist’s mouth.

Schiff’s allies have also used subtler tactics to press his case. A Politico story last month alleged that a Schiff-Porter general election would take money and attention away from key California House races that could decide which party has control next year. Only politicians who have endorsed Schiff are quoted putting forward that narrative in the story, along with one anonymous campaign operative.

When I asked Porter about this story last month at the first Senate debate, she replied that a Dem-Dem Senate race would actually boost Democratic turnout in the state, given the uncompetitive presidential election in California. “Having a spirited conversation between Democrats is the best tool that we have,” Porter said. “The Senate race will be the top of the ticket. If we don’t have a competitive Senate race, Democrats won’t be able to win down-ballot, including in Congress but also in places like our school district where we’re seeing LGBT individuals attacked.”

Porter does have some advantages in a hypothetical general election on the other side of the aisle. Because Schiff is so well defined as a Trump antagonist, Republicans in the state will likely vote for his opponent in November, no matter who it is. Kevin de León won several red counties in California when he ran in 2018 against Dianne Feinstein, even though he was running to her left.

Three of the biggest developments in Democratic primaries in recent history have been the rise of pro-Israel and crypto funding and the strategic deployment of advertising to boost weaker opponents. All of this has come together in a Schiff campaign that some have portrayed as the height of cynicism in 2024. But Schiff’s eagerness to wink and nod to the crypto industry in particular and his comfort with support from big-money interests in general suggest real policy implications to the “win at all costs” approach. The reason it’s done, of course, is that it’s often effective.

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