California US Senate contenders make their final debate arguments

Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Steve Garvey faced off in Los Angeles.|

Stay up-to-date with free briefings on topics that matter to all Californians. Subscribe to CalMatters today for nonprofit news in your inbox.

The top four candidates vying to become California’s next U.S. senator arrived at Universal Studios in Hollywood Tuesday for their last live televised debate — a final chance to sway undecided debate-watchers — before the March 5 primary.

The debate hosted by NBC4 and Telemundo 52 drew Democratic U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, as well as Steve Garvey, a Republican and former L.A. Dodgers star.

Broadcast in both English and Spanish, the hour-long event was an opportunity for candidates to reach Spanish-speaking Latino voters, who could help determine winners up and down the ballot in March — if they turn out.

The candidates have stressed for months the importance of reaching Latino voters, who are the biggest racial and ethnic group in California but the least likely to vote. Lee, Porter and Schiff have participated in two forums targeting Latino voters, including a November event on immigration issues and another hosted by the Latino Community Foundation and Spanish-language broadcast network Univision on Saturday, which Garvey declined to attend.

But recent polling among Latino voters shows a large portion still undecided in this race. A California Elections and Policy poll published earlier this month showed that 31% of likely Latino voters were undecided.

While most Latinos nationwide speak English proficiently, some researchers say airing Spanish-language ads still helps political campaigns resonate with and turn out Latino voters. But in the Senate race, even as campaigns dropped millions on digital and TV ads statewide, they have spent little on Spanish-language advertising, Politico reported.

Here are some key highlights from Tuesday:

Latino outreach

All three Democrats received the same question:

Why should Latino voters trust you, even though Democrats failed to overhaul the immigration system when they controlled both the White House and Congress?

Porter — who often tries to distinguish herself from others she deems “career politicians” in Washington, D.C. — blamed her colleagues in Congress.

“I’m not satisfied with what Democrats or Republicans have been delivering,” she said. “I’m not going to offer you the status quo because the status quo has been unacceptable and not enough for millions of Americans. I’m tired of hearing about comprehensive immigration reform. I want to do it.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform” is just what Lee and Schiff championed next. All three have supported — or even co-sponsored — bills to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their children.

“Our Latino community should not trust us. They should grade us based on the work that we have done, our voting record and exactly what we believe in,” Lee said, pledging to work with California’s U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla on providing legal status for long-term U.S. residents and farmworkers.

Schiff — endorsed by both the United Farm Workers and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights’s Action Fund — said the failure to “reform” the immigration system in 2010 was “on our party.” To pass it, Democrats would have to “do it ourselves” and get rid of the filibuster — a political tactic often used to prolong a floor debate and slow down legislative actions.

But why should Latino voters trust Republicans such as former President Donald Trump, who reportedly opposed a bipartisan immigration deal to avoid giving President Joe Biden a victory?

Garvey, who received the question, blamed the bill for not doing enough to “secure the border,” even though the bill would have given Biden emergency power to shut down the border.

All three Democrats said they would not have voted for the bill package, arguing it did not go far enough to protect immigrants.

War and peace

The candidates diverged on America’s role in the world and whether the country should provide foreign aid.

Lee — who has been the most consistent of the candidates to oppose increasing military funding and the only one to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza — disagreed with most of her opponents on multiple issues.

She was the only Democrat to directly oppose the U.S. deploying troops to Taiwan if it were attacked by China. Garvey said “no troops on the ground.” Porter said she would “support safeguarding us from the threats of China,” while Schiff sided with Biden, who has supported deploying troops.

On the bipartisan deal to provide $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, Lee was the only one to express concerns with certain provisions.

Garvey was asked to “defend” Trump’s foreign policy agenda but did not answer the question, instead telling the TV audience that he would do “everything to maintain your security.”

Climate change

When asked about the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County — California’s last nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to shut down after 2030 — all three Democrats agreed it must eventually be decommissioned, and some agreed with Newsom’s schedule.

But will the candidates embrace nuclear energy?

Schiff, while stressing the nation should move away from fossil fuel and invest in new energy, said nuclear energy must be part of the discussion.

Lee said she does not support nuclear power. Porter said she sees nuclear waste “in my own backyard,” noting she is part of the bipartisan Fusion Caucus in Congress that’s focused on new technology that reduces hazardous waste.

Garvey, however, supported keeping Diablo Canyon open and also said fossil fuels should be here to stay.

“This country runs on gas and oil,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, the people will decide. They are the ones that will tell us what they can afford and what they need.”

Clashes between Schiff and Porter

Schiff and Porter went toe-to-toe Tuesday, trading blows on multiple issues from child care to corporate donations.

While talking about inflation, Porter claimed Schiff did not sign on as co-sponsors of two bills to lower child care costs. She was referring to the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would cap child care costs at 7% of a family’s household income, and the Child Care for Every Community Act, which would waive child care fees for low-income families, her campaign told CalMatters.

Schiff countered that he has authored his own. “There’s nothing easier than putting your name on a bill. Where you see the real legislators is that they write their own legislation,” he said.

Schiff’s campaign pointed to two bills he helped introduce, including the Child Care Stabilization Act to extend funding for child care providers and the Affordable Housing and Childcare Investment Act to fund for more child care facilities.

The two also clashed on their record accepting campaign contributions from corporations. Porter — who has touted her record of never having accepted corporate PAC money — has criticized Schiff for accepting a total of $2 million from corporate PAC throughout his career. His campaign has not cashed checks from corporate PACs this election.

Schiff, however, accused Porter of taking contributions from oil, banking and pharmaceutical industries even as her campaign swore off those industry executives’ money. Fairshake PAC, a super PAC sponsored by crypto financiers, has made a similar claim in a million-dollar ad blitz against her.

When asked for proof, Schiff’s campaign pointed to statistics collected by OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

Data shows Porter’s campaign collected more than $171,000 from individuals who worked in the energy and natural resources sector, $290,000 from those who worked in the pharmaceutical and health products industry and almost $3 million from the finance, insurance and real estate industry, which includes commercial banking.

The data does not distinguish between contributions from executives and those from low-level employees. A separate fact check by the Sacramento Bee of the Fairshake claim rated it “mostly false.”

The two also again clashed on earmarks — a process members of Congress use to secure federal funding for their own districts. Porter has argued that the process breeds corruption and has refused to make requests, noting she has instead testified in hearings and written support letters for district-specific federal funding.

“Washington gave sweetheart deals to certain defense contractors through earmarks, and there is a candidate on this stage who has done that again and again, getting earmarks for his private corporate donors who are big defense contractors,” Porter said, referring to Schiff’s early-career campaign contributions from PACs and lobbyists tied to for-profit companies he helped deliver funding to.

Porter did not attack Lee, who also requested earmark funding.

Schiff argued Tuesday that not requesting the funding would only benefit lawmakers from other states, stating that Porter “prefers a political talking point.”

“Any senator who won’t do that is going to be a gift to every other state of the union, who will fight for resources for their state.”

Despite their clashes, Schiff, who is leading in the polls, and Porter, who is trying to finish in the top two, have adopted seemingly similar political strategies.

Schiff has lambasted Garvey in debates, mailers and TV ads on his past votes for former President Donald Trump — a campaign tactic experts have said could help elevate Garvey’s profile and thrust him into the top two, likely guaranteeing Schiff an easier path to victory if he finishes as the top candidate on March 5.

Porter’s campaign has slammed Schiff for propping up Garvey, deeming it in her fundraising messages as a “sneaky play” to “push Katie out of the top two.”

But her campaign engaged in a similar tactic targeting Eric Early, a GOP attorney who is lagging in polls and fundraising despite winning the endorsement of a dozen local Republican parties. “MAGA Republican Eric Early proudly stands with Donald Trump, while Steve Garvey refuses to tell us who he supports,” the ad said.

Porter invoked Early’s name again on stage Tuesday, arguing he is “100% MAGA.”

Porter spokesperson Nathan Click defended the ad, telling Politico the clip simply works to “set the record straight about Republican Trump-worshipper Eric Early and dodging waffler Steve Garvey.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.