Israel's war on Gaza looms large in California senate race

Israel's war on Gaza looms large in California senate race
"It's a very defining moment for California... Right now, it's been rallies and a lot of talk. Now we get to put our votes where our mouths are."
6 min read
Washington, DC
19 January, 2024
The leading candidates in California's Senate race have made public statements on Israel's war in Gaza. [Brooke Anderson/The New Arab]

Foreign policy does not typically feature prominently in US Senate races. However, in the case of Israel's war in Gaza, all of the top candidates in California's Senate race, with the primary on 5 March or "Super Tuesday", have made their positions clear, with endorsements and donations following.

A tight and high-profile race

Still leading the pack in California's senate race since shortly after his campaign announcement in January of last year is Representative Adam Schiff, who gained significant name recognition for chairing the select committee for the 6 January insurrection and whose early endorsement from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped give him a strong start. He has not endorsed a ceasefire, and was endorsed this week by the Democratic Majority for Israel political action committee.

Not far behind is Representative Katie Porter, a progressive with the unusual distinction of turning a red district blue. She is known for her animated speeches on the House floor admonishing corporate greed. She came out in favour of a ceasefire in December.

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Though Porter was clear in her call for a bilateral ceasefire, the statement from her office appears to put most of the blame for the conflict and lack of humanitarian aid access to Gaza on Hamas, putting much less blame on Israel. Moreover, the Working Families Party, which has been keeping a running tally of Congress members supporting a ceasefire, does not include Porter on their list, which was last updated on 3 January.   

Barbara Lee, who has been trailing for third or fourth place, though according to some polls, could be competing for second, is the most senior of the leading candidates. In addition to a solidly progressive voting record, she is known for casting the lone House vote in September 2001 against US military deployment in Afghanistan. She was one of the first members of Congress to support a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza.

According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll last month, Schiff leads with 28 percent, Lee Garvey a moderate Republican follows with 19 percent, Porter comes in at 17 percent, and Lee has 14 percent, which according to the poll is a statistical three-way tie for second place. The top two vote-getters in the primary in March will go on to compete in the general election in November.

This week, Lee received the endorsement of the Sacramento Bee, the California capital's biggest newspaper. The publication described her as "an idealist and a truth-teller; she's often compared to Sen. Bernie Sanders — minus the curmudgeonliness." The newspaper goes on to describe her long history of progressive politics, including her lone vote against the war in Afghanistan, which it notes was later only supported by around 50 per cent of the public. 

The Bee notes her support for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, as they praise her long political career, pointing to her serving on multiple committees and standing by her convictions. 

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In another sign of institutional support, Lee won the most delegates at the California Democratic Party Convention last month despite lagging behind her main rivals in fundraising.

As the death toll in Gaza approaches 25,000, the list of Congress members supporting a ceasefire continues to grow, currently numbering around 65. Though still a fraction (around 12 per cent) of the House and Senate, it is nevertheless a significant number given the sensitivity of the Israel-Palestine conflict in Congress. It could also indicate where politicians, including in California, see public opinion going.

This month, US Representative Josh Harder, who faces a competitive re-election in California's Central Valley, announced that he supported a bilateral ceasefire. He cited conversations with community members for his position.

California in the political spotlight

California's senate race, which began months before Dianne Feinstein's death, as her health was deteriorating to the point that she was missing votes, was always going to be a contentious race due to its position as having the country's highest population and with the world's fifth largest economy. 

Because of California's size and strength, statewide elections often get national attention, and an ongoing war has thrust this race even further into the spotlight.

"I'd say foreign policy isn't the main driver, but it can be decisive on occasion," J. Miles Coleman, J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told The New Arab.

"I would say candidates distancing themselves from Biden could be advantageous to Democrats, depending on the area," he added.

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The upcoming 2024 election could be one of the rare cases where candidates in down-ballot races will distance themselves from the incumbent in their own party. In California and across the country, this follows more than three months of daily protests against Israel's bombing of Gaza. 

Polls show that the majority of the American public, around 68 per cent, favour a ceasefire. This translates to voter pressure on their representatives.

"This is a moment that calls for moral and strategic clarity. That is why we believe that the United States must help achieve an immediate ceasefire, or at minimum, a temporary cessation of all hostilities that stops the threats to civilians in Israel and Gaza," said Lee in a joint statement with six other House members on 17 October, one of the earliest shows of support for a ceasefire.

In another sign of her connection to her constituents on Israel's war in Gaza, at the top of the homepage of her congressional website reads, "Alert: Do you have family in Gaza or Israel? Click here for assistance."

Connor Farrell, CEO of Left Rising, told TNA, "Her call for a ceasefire is another instance of her pro-peace stance. Her courage in the early 2000s earned her much support with Democrats over the years, and I am optimistic her stance now will too." 

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An important race for Arabs and Muslims

"This race in California is the most important one for us," Mirvette Judeh, a Palestinian American activist in Buena Park in southern California who strongly supports Lee, told TNA. She describes Porter's ceasefire statement as watered down and believes she took the position when she saw a slight drop in the polls.

Najee Ali, founder of the Muslim Democratic Club of Southern California, has no hesitation about supporting Lee in his state's senate race.

"The congresswoman has always been a champion of peace and justice, most importantly on the right side of history," he told TNA

"This is something voters should remember when they go to the ballot box. Even if the polls might not seem favourable to her now, I believe she'll do a lot better than the polls indicate, especially with young voters, minorities, progressives, and Arab and Muslim communities," he said.

"It's a very defining moment for California, for Arabs, Muslims, those in solidarity, true progressives, and Jews that are pro-Palestine, to demonstrate how big of an impact they'll have," said Judeh. "Right now, it's been rallies, advocating for a ceasefire through many avenues,  and a lot of talk. Now, we get to put our votes where our mouths are."