CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
There wasn’t an endorsement vote, or even a straw poll. But there was still plenty of politicking at the state Democratic Party convention over the weekend by the three Democrats seeking to move up to the U.S. Senate and succeed Dianne Feinstein.
U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee were out in full force — courting delegates in the exhibit hall and making their sales pitches at different caucus meetings, tailoring their messages as needed.
- At the Women’s Caucus meeting on Friday, Schiff of Burbank made his appeal by reminding the crowd of his experience standing up to former President Trump, and said it was women who voted out that “orange-haired SOB” in 2020. His other key tactic: touting his endorsement from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was the keynote speaker of the weekend.
- Porter of Irvine pitched her willingness to ‘’shake up Washington,” telling the Women’s Caucus that she has not taken any money from Big Oil, corporations or their political action committees.
- Lee of Oakland told delegates she would bring a unique perspective to the Senate, where there are no Black women currently serving, and highlighted her record of trying to address inequality and her readiness to vote her convictions.
The courtship continued later into the evening, with Friday night gatherings hosted by Schiff and Lee. But their tones were starkly different.
Schiff hosted a comedy night, where he dropped f-bombs and joked about his relationship with his wife, Eve (“She said, ‘Adam, we’ve been married for 25 years. We’ve been having the same sex for 25 years. And I just think there’s got to be a better way.’”) and roasted Republican politicians, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump.
Meanwhile, Lee’s event was loud and buzzing, with state and local elected officials singing her praises. Porter greeted delegates Saturday morning while serving breakfast items at her exhibit hall booth.
Lee’s supporters were the loudest and most visible at the convention. But it’s unclear whether activists’ enthusiasm translates into Lee or Porter catching up to Schiff’s establishment support and fundraising. Schiff’s Pelosi endorsement stood out, since the convention was so Pelosi-centered — the theme “Don’t agonize, organize!” was a quote from her, and the official tote bags featured her iconic clap-back during Trump’s State of the Union speech.
A poll released last week shows Porter and Schiff ahead of Lee, but more voters undecided. But if two of them manage to prevail in March under California’s top-two primary system, it may be Republicans — not Democrats — who decide the winner in November 2024.
More than 2,500 delegates and officials gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center for four days ending Sunday.
Here some other key takeaways:
Organizing against MAGA
Delegates united behind the convention theme: “Don’t agonize, organize!”
And there was plenty of agony after the 2022 election, in which some close losses in California congressional races helped tip the scales in favor of Republicans taking control of the U.S. House.
The party said it contacted 850,000 voters on Saturday afternoon — a priority for Democrats. A Public Policy Institute of California analysis last week found that turnout among Democrats, women and voters of color — all key Democratic constituencies — all dropped more from 2020 than among Republicans, men and white voters.
“We need to take our organizing and our righteous fight for justice all the way ’til November of next year!” implored Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
To energize the party base for the 2024 election, there’s little better than going after Democrats’ favorite bogeyman — Trump, the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. So there were plenty of attacks from party leaders against Trump and his MAGA base as extremists against women’s rights and democracy.
And Newsom used his favorite foils and one of his favorite phrases: “This is the free state of California! Eat your heart out, Florida and Texas!”
All hail Pelosi
Delegates also paid homage to Pelosi of San Francisco, the first female speaker of the U.S. House, who lost her position after last year’s election to another Californian, Republican Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
The party put together a tribute video, and speakers heaped praise on her leadership. “She reinvented that position,” Newsom said. “She reinvented that office.”
In her Saturday morning speech to delegates, she went after D.C. Republicans, but also mentioned how much she’s enjoying her time as speaker-emerita: “Do you know what ‘emerita’ means? It means happiness.”
But the Pelosi love-fest didn’t go off entirely without a hitch: Reporters were not allowed to cover the Saturday dinner honoring her.
Dissension in the ranks
The state party is the nation’s largest, claiming more than 10 million members. So it’s no surprise that the party faithful don’t agree on every issue — and some of that dissension showed up at the convention.
While Newsom spoke, some delegates shouted at him for not supporting single-payer healthcare enough. In his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, he pledged to create such a system, but has backed away while in office, though he has signed bills to expand coverage. Bills for single-payer have failed in the Legislature, including last year, a very sore point for progressives.
And while Democrats control the Legislature, they don’t always see eye to eye with Newsom. That’s playing out in the budget negotiations as Assembly and Senate leaders haggle with the governor over more money for child care providers, climate change programs and public transit.
Disagreement with a supermajority isn’t great, but it’s better than being in the superminority.
During the convention, California Republicans were left to throw brickbats and grenades from the sidelines. They tried to spoil Democrats’ party by pointing out some not-so-positive recent headlines: the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office’s report that the state budget deficit is worse than Newsom claims; the embarrassing drunken driving arrest for state Sen. Dave Min; and the big trouble facing former California labor chief Julie Su’s nomination as U.S. labor secretary.
And the GOP criticized legislative Democrats, again, for not acting aggressively enough to go after fentanyl dealers — in contrast to advancing a bill, labeled the “Skittles ban,” to outlaw certain chemicals in foods.
But California Republicans have their own issues, including a split between those supporting DeSantis for president and the grassroots activists who are still firmly behind Trump, as displayed at the state GOP convention in March.
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