Adam B. Schiff is running a new TV spot in his bid for U.S. Senate, and to hear the outcry you’d have thought he was peddling swampland or calling for the execution of puppies and kittens.
The ad is innocuous enough. Deep-voiced narrator. Tinkling piano. Varied scenes — a suburban home, a doctor in white lab coat — flash by.
“Two leading candidates for Senate,” the narrator intones. “Two very different visions for California.”
Then, who shows up on screen but Schiff, embroidered in blue, and Republican Steve Garvey, rimmed in red.
The calculus is plain. Schiff is hoping to clinch the Senate seat in the March 5 primary by lifting his weakest possible opponent, Garvey, into a November runoff.
Brazen? Sure. Cynical or anti-democratic, as some critics claim? Not a bit.
“All is fair,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who helped write the pick-your-opponent playbook more than 20 years ago when he worked to reelect California’s beleaguered governor, Gray Davis. “The fact is that candidates have to do what they have to do within the context of the individual election in which they’re running.”
This is politics, after all. Not patty-cake.
In California that means navigating an election system in which the two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of political party.
Schiff appears well positioned to nab the top slot. That leaves three contestants vying for second place: Garvey and Schiff’s fellow Democratic House members Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.
There are no certainties in life. But Republicans haven’t won a U.S Senate seat in California since 1988, when “Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway and the USSR was still a thing.
Garvey’s chances of ending that losing streak are about as good as his prospects, at age 75, of beating Shohei Ohtani in a home run hitting contest. Hence Schiff’s eagerness to face him in November.
Porter, who seems to be in closest competition with Garvey for the No. 2 spot, responded to Schiff’s TV spot with an outraged statement and by throwing down the gender card. Schiff is not only boosting a Republican, Porter stewed on X, but also is “boxing out qualified Democratic women candidates.”
Hours later, former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer endorsed Schiff. She had planned to stay neutral in the contest, but said she changed her mind in part because of Porter’s “unwarranted pointed attacks” on Schiff and inference that the Burbank congressman was misogynist. (The headline — “Boxer rejects ‘boxing out’ assertion” — writes itself.)
It may be shrewd, but Schiff’s move is no longer particularly novel.
In 2002, South helped sabotage Davis’ most-feared Republican rival, Richard Riordan, by resurfacing an old cable TV interview in which the former L.A. mayor described abortion as murder. The ad undermined Riordan’s moderate image and helped Davis’ preferred opponent, the more conservative Bill Simon Jr., win the GOP primary. He then lost to Davis in the fall.
A top Schiff campaign advisor, Larry Grisolano, worked on that gubernatorial contest. “He’s not only seen this movie before,” South said. “He helped direct it.”
Since then, other candidates have pursued similarly meddlesome strategies.
Most famously perhaps in 2012, in Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill poured millions into TV ads aimed at elevating her preferred opponent, the hapless Todd Aiken, in the Republican primary.
McCaskill, who was reelected in a landslide, later explained how it worked. The ads, she wrote in her autobiography, “made it look as though I was trying to disqualify him, though, as we know, when you call someone ‘too conservative’ in a Republican primary, that’s giving him or her a badge of honor … Our telephones were ringing off the hook with people saying, ‘Just because she’s telling me not to vote for him, I’m voting for him.’”
Schiff’s ad takes a similar tack, calling Garvey too conservative for California and noting he twice voted for Donald Trump — an invitation for Republicans to turn out on Garvey’s behalf and push him past Porter and Lee on March 5.
Say what you will. The 30-second spot is factual and Schiff isn’t hiding behind an independent expenditure campaign or using “dark money” — that is, untraceable campaign funds — to pay for it.
Voters have a choice. If they’re put off by Schiff’s tactic and feel it’s somehow unconscionable for him to focus on Garvey, they can vote against him.
Porter urges as much in her response ad, deriding Garvey and Schiff as “typical politicians” and reiterating her vow to be a force for change and a fighter in Washington and the Senate.
But if it’s a fighter Democrats want, maybe they’ll appreciate a candidate who doesn’t pull his punches.