SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
California’s wide-open U.S. Senate race shifted to Sacramento on Saturday as the top Democratic candidates worked to woo activists in search of a state party endorsement ahead of the March primary. .
US Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, as well as former tech executive Lexi Reese will all make their case to hundreds of party delegates at the California Democratic Party’s annual convention. They are seeking to fill the seat currently held by Senator Laphonza Butler, who was appointed when Senator Dianne Feinstein died in September. Butler did not seek election.
The bar for a formal endorsement – 60% of the vote – is unlikely to be reached because the top three candidates are all sitting members of Congress with large bases of support. But Saturday night’s vote will provide a glimpse of how the party faithful view the top candidates, with the two likely to meet in a head-to-head matchup. in the general election if no Republican gains enough support to advance in the primary.
California’s primary system allows candidates of all parties to compete on a single ballot, sending the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of party. The state’s last two US Senate races — in 2016 and 2018 — each featured two Democrats.
Senate candidates take turns speaking during a forum before delegates vote.
Schiff is widely seen as the front-runner, leading the candidates in fundraising and boasting a package of influential endorsements — including the coveted blessing of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Public polls, on average, have Porter second and Lee third. But a large chunk of voters are still undecided, making the race far from a sure thing.
An endorsement from the state’s Democratic Party can boost a campaign in a competitive primary, but it doesn’t necessarily signal how more voters feel about the race because delegates to party tends to be more liberal. In 2018, the state party endorsed former state Sen. Kevin de Leon over Feinstein in the general election, though it did little to boost her candidacy. Feinstein easily won the general election.
“The endorsing convention is usually symbolic and it can send a signal, if there is united support for a particular candidate, that there is strong momentum behind a particular candidate. But we usually don’t see that,” said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who works on Democratic politics. “We always see divisions, we see divisions.”
Endorsements aren’t the only thing Democrats will be voting on this week as the party is also considering updates to its platform. The Israel-Hamas war is likely to be a topic of intense debate throughout the week. Party leaders have stepped up security for the convention, which comes days after police and protesters clashed outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
“It simply shows a recognition that we are in a tense time, not only here in Sacramento, but across the country and around the world,” said California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks. “We want to make sure everyone is safe, everyone feels safe, and they have a chance to have their voice heard.”
On Friday, dozens of protesters gathered outside the convention hall in Sacramento to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. That kind of protest could benefit a candidate like Lee, who was the only Democrat to vote against the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I think that’s one of the issues in this convention, this Israel-Gaza conflict and maybe allowing Barbara Lee to get a little bit of energy from it,” said Andrew Acosta, a political consultant at Democratic.
While the US Senate race will get a lot of attention, party leaders say they are more focused on the congressional races the party must win to regain control of the US House of Representatives. Hicks said the party plans to spend “in the seven figures” in some congressional races, including targeting Central Valley Republicans John Duarte and David Valadao and Mike Garcia, Michelle Steel and Young Kim in Southern California.
“We have a special obligation when it comes to helping restore the House of Representatives,” Hicks said. “The truth is, you can’t win the House if you can’t win seats here in California.”