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The race to fill the late Dianne Feinstein's California Senate seat

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The race to fill the U.S. Senate seat in California last held by the late Dianne Feinstein is coming down to a fight for second place ahead of Tuesday's election. That's because of California's unique primary system. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED explains.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Orange County Democratic Congresswoman Katie Porter is fighting for her political future ahead of next Tuesday's primary.

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KATIE PORTER: Look. I'm different than Representative Schiff. He's taken corporate PAC checks from BP, from Sempra, from SoCalGas. And these are household names. They are polluters. So people can count on me to do...

LAGOS: Porter's hoping she can pull out a second-place finish and face off against fellow Democrat LA Congressman Adam Schiff in November. Schiff's been leading in polls, and the two sparred at a recent debate hosted by NBC 4 in LA.

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ADAM SCHIFF: I don't think Representative Porter's been fully clear about her own record of taking thousands of dollars from people in the oil industry, thousands from Wall Street bankers.

LAGOS: Both candidates swore off corporate PAC money in this campaign. But as they try to differentiate themselves to Democratic voters, they've put all of one another's past campaign contributions under a microscope. It all matters because Republicans haven't won a statewide office in nearly 20 years here. And under the state's unique primary system, the top two finishers in Tuesday's election will move on to the runoff, meaning the GOP could be shut out entirely.

The other big-name Democrat in the race, Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, has struggled to raise as much money as her opponents and has consistently pulled behind them. So as voters decide who to send to a November runoff for a Senate seat that hasn't been open in three decades, Porter is working to try and beat out a political neophyte, former LA Dodgers star Republican Steve Garvey. Garvey hasn't done many campaign events or interviews and has lagged in fundraising. He's also struggled to articulate policy positions, like in the debate, when he was asked what legislation he would focus on if elected.

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STEVE GARVEY: Well, I graduated from Michigan State with an education degree and haven't had a chance to get to the classroom, but I think that's one of the most important things I can do - is get back to reading, writing, arithmetic.

LAGOS: Yet despite his underwhelming campaign, polls show Garvey in a strong position to claim one of the top two spots, along with Adam Schiff.

DEBBIE MESLOH: It's obviously his race to lose at this point.

LAGOS: Debbie Mesloh is a Democratic communications specialist. She says Democrats know and trust Schiff because of his prominent role pushing back against former President Trump, including leading the 2019 impeachment inquiry.

MESLOH: He has more of a national profile, given the impeachment hearings, and so that name ID is higher for him.

LAGOS: Schiff has been running ads propping up Garvey, apparently in the hopes of facing a less competitive runoff. Republicans make up slightly under one-quarter of the electorate. That's angered Porter and her supporters, who say Democrats deserve a real race. Mark Baldassare, a pollster who directs the Public Policy Institute of California surveys, says Garvey may be able to pull out a top two finish but would be hard-pressed to beat a Democrat in November.

MARK BALDASSARE: What's happened increasingly is that Garvey is consolidating the Republican vote. Most independent voters lean Democrat, but some of them lean Republican and have voted for Trump.

LAGOS: Mesloh says the possibility of two men competing for a seat long held by a woman could move some voters toward Porter, a middle-class single mom who has made that a centerpiece of her political identity. Mesloh notes that not only are women underrepresented in the Senate. Moms are, too.

MESLOH: I do think when women go to the polls, that's going to make a difference.

LAGOS: Recent polls, however, show Schiff outperforming Porter with female voters. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST (FEAT. ANNA WISE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marisa Lagos
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