The Mercury News

Political branding will matter in the California Senate race

- By Mark Z. Barabak Mark Z. Barabak is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

When Adam B. Schiff recently brought his U.S. Senate campaign to Northern California, 500 people showed up for his stop at a 55-and-older community nestled in the green, rolling hills of the East Bay. Dozens more were turned away.

A few weeks earlier, Katie Porter drew a similar overflow crowd when she kicked off her bid to replace the retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein with an appearance before the same Democratic audience.

The turnout suggests a notable shift in California politics.

It used to be that House members like Schiff and Porter spent their days toiling in relative obscurity. Those who traveled just a few blocks outside their districts were about as familiar as the anonymous attendant working the drive-through window at some doughnut shop.

However, by the time Schiff and Porter arrived more than 350 miles from home to address the Rossmoor Democratic club, they were both household names with well-establishe­d political brands.

Neither was hindered by their personal geography — Schiff in Burbank, Porter in Irvine — or their lack of a significan­t connection to the Bay Area. Their celebrity status saw to that.

California has a limited history of electing House members to the U.S. Senate. Just a handful have managed the feat since the direct election of U.S. senators began a century ago.

In a lightly populated state such as Wyoming or Montana, with just a lone House member or two, “you're a big deal as a congresspe­rson,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Feinstein strategist.

“But the more members of Congress there are, the tougher it is to move up the ladder,” Carrick said.

California`s last House member to make it to the Senate was Barbara Boxer, in 1992, and the notion that the Marin County congresswo­man could have launched her bid before 500 cheering Democrats in, say, Long Beach or Laguna Niguel, is utterly fantastica­l.

“When she started running, she knew almost no one in Southern California, and more importantl­y, they didn't know her,” said Rose Kapolczyns­ki, who ran Boxer's long shot campaign. “She did months of meetings with political leaders and major donors, and finally got a core group of people who were excited about her, and did bigger events and started to become better-known.

“But that was a long retail politics project,” Kapolczyns­ki said.

And it was a long time before the developmen­t of today's political news ecosystem.

Bottomless TV news coverage and the ability of viewers to share choice snippets on social media have turned voters into front-row spectators to the political dramas of the day and made heroes of the supporting cast.

“Our members were glued to the Jan. 6 hearings. They were glued to the impeachmen­t hearings,” said Katha Hartley, chair of the Rossmoor Democrats' speakers committee. “We've seen Adam Schiff do his thing. We've seen Katie Porter in action.”

Little wonder partisans met both with rousing ovations before they even said a word.

Of course, there is another House member running for Feinstein's seat: Oakland's Barbara Lee. Her distinctio­n as the sole candidate, so far, from Northern California could theoretica­lly give her an advantage.

Four of California's most recent U.S. senators — Boxer, Feinstein, Kamala Harris and Alan Cranston — and the state's last two governors — Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom — all had a background in Bay Area politics.

Democrats historical­ly they have shown greater preference for candidates from the north than the south.

Porter and Schiff promise to test that loyalty with their fame and dedicated followings, and Lee knows better than to take her home turf for granted. Soon after entering the race, the East Bay congresswo­man ran into The Times' Dakota Smith at Los Angeles City Hall. “I'm going for votes everywhere,” Lee told her.

She needs to. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Schiff and Porter both running ahead of Lee in the Bay Area.

It was just one poll, and it's still very early in the contest. But clearly California is a different place than it was the last time a House member made the leap to the U.S. Senate.

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