The single biggest issue dividing California’s Senate race

The single biggest issue dividing California’s Senate race

No other issue has divided the top three Democratic candidates in the California Senate race as much as the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Barbara Lee represent opposite ends of their party on the war, with Schiff largely supporting Israel’s response while Lee has called for an immediate cease-fire since the day after the Oct. 7 attack.

Rep. Katie Porter has sought a middle-of-the-road approach, calling for a “bilateral cease-fire,” in effect demanding an end to the violence with conditions attached.

Divisions between the three representatives — one of whom is expected to win the Senate seat in deep-blue California — mirror intraparty rifts among Democrats nationwide over the Biden administration’s response to the war.

A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found more than 90 percent of Californians have heard at least some news about the conflict, and protests have disrupted major political events around the state. Mark Baldassare, a veteran pollster at PPIC, said voters are showing unusually high interest in the candidates’ stances on the international issue.

“It’s a foreign policy issue that’s front and center in terms of the job description,” he said.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers star Steve Garvey, a Republican, is polling in the top three. After a Thursday meeting with Bay Area Jewish leaders, he said he stood with Israel, and does not support a cease-fire.

Garvey, Schiff, Porter and Lee will defend their positions during their first California Senate debate from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. PST Monday in Los Angeles. It will be livestreamed on POLITICO.

How did the war become such a central issue in the race?

Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza has sharply divided Democratic primary voters as the death toll — now estimated at more than 24,000 — rises. (About 1,200 people were killed in the October attacks against Israel). The tensions have spilled over into protests at the party’s fall convention in Sacramento and within the halls of the state Capitol.

The cease-fire issue has become a litmus test for the party’s far left flank, with many citing Lee’s stance as the reason for supporting her campaign.

Where does Lee stand?

Lee has stressed her call for an immediate cease-fire “since the beginning,” on the trail. She argues that an armistice with conditions is “not a ceasefire at all” — an apparent dig at Porter.

She has also used the issue to point to her opposition to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which made her an progressive icon in Congress.

Lee has sought to use the contrast to galvanize primary voters on the left. At the California Democratic Party’s fall convention in Sacramento, protesters gave her a standing ovation while heckling Schiff and Porter.

Lee has repeatedly campaigned on her cease-fire stance during town halls hosted by groups like Our Revolution, one of the largest progressive organizations in the country and an offshoot of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Her reach is limited, though, without the money to buy many TV ads or communicate statewide beyond the most highly engaged groups.

How has Porter shifted?

Porter and Schiff were initially in lockstep on the issue, with both refusing to back calls for a cease-fire and showing strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the attacks.

But Porter carved out a separate lane in December as the death toll mounted and President Joe Biden, a steadfast supporter of Israel, expressed growing frustration with the Israeli government over its “indiscriminate bombing.”

Porter said the U.S.’s role should be “to identify and push for conditions where a lasting bilateral ceasefire is possible.” She attached conditions including the release of all hostages seized in the attacks, the end of Hamas control of Gaza and security for Israel.

While rival campaigns accused Porter of shifting with public sentiment, her campaign said her new position reflected changing realities in a volatile war.

Has Schiff changed his position at all?

Schiff has resisted pressure to back some form of a cease-fire. He has been most in line with the Biden administration’s stance of supporting Israel’s right to respond to Hamas while calling on its government to minimize civilian casualties and support humanitarian pauses for aid.

Schiff has said he cannot support a cease-fire while Hamas continues to hold Israeli citizens hostage and while Hamas remains in power in Gaza.

“No state could allow that kind of terrorist threat to exist on its border,” Schiff recently told the editorial boards of McClatchy’s California newspapers.

Late last year, Schiff sharply condemned the Oakland City Council for passing a cease-fire resolution while refusing to denounce Hamas. He’s also raised concerns about antisemitic actions on college campuses and rising Islamophobia.

Schiff, at the same time, has been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Friday, he and other Jewish members of Congress denounced Netanyahu for rejecting calls to create a Palestinian state in a post-war scenario.

How is it resonating in polling?

A recent poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found registered voters in California divided over the cease-fire question: 41 percent supported Israel agreeing to a cease-fire even if Hamas remains a force in Gaza; 36 percent supported Israel continuing military operations until Hamas is removed; and 23 percent had no opinion.

The poll found young voters and people of color were less supportive of Israel’s actions than older and white voters.

The word “cease-fire” has become especially loaded in the conflict, with Palestinians and many progressive activists using the word to call for an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign. Many Democrats have also sought to broaden the definition with a “bilateral cease-fire” that includes conditions.

Tyler Gregory, CEO of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council, said he views both Schiff and Porter’s stances as comparably supportive of Israel, saying, “the difference is largely semantics.”

“We take issue with the term ‘cease-fire,’” Gregory added. “It’s become so politicized, it means different things to different people. The question is, ‘What do you believe is going to achieve peace and security?’”

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