Rep. Adam Schiff's relentless fight against former President Donald Trump rocketed him to national prominence and made him a darling of the Democratic Party.
But that may not be enough to make the former Blue Dog budget hawk a “progressive champion," as he is billing himself in the California Senate race.
Activists on the left who have their own favorites in the crowded primary contest are beginning to argue that Schiff is not one of them.
The friction became apparent when he decided to withdraw his application to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Wednesday, a move that may be because the group wasn't going to let him in.
"Adam is proud to be a progressive and was encouraged to join the caucus last session but deferred until the completion of his January 6 committee responsibilities. After hearing from his colleagues that some were attempting to make his joining this session political, Adam decided to withdraw from consideration until he joins the U.S. Senate," said Schiff spokesperson Lauren French.
Questions about Schiff's ideological evolution have already dogged his campaign in California and prompted consternation on the left in Washington, where members of the caucus, which typically welcomes all Democrats who want to join, were concerned he was trying to use their group only to bolster his credentials while campaigning for the Senate against two of its most prominent members, Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.
“It’s always a challenge when we have an incumbent member who has been here for a long time and hasn’t been a member of the Progressive Caucus and then wants to right before an election,” caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said last week at a House Democrats’ retreat in Baltimore, before Schiff withdrew his application.
She told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that Schiff's application was "divisive" in the caucus, given the timing, so she appreciated that he took himself out of the running.
Over his 22 years in Congress, Schiff has been a member of the centrist Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses and supported moderate policies — balancing the budget, the death penalty for cop killers, business-friendly labor rules — that might not raise eyebrows in a typical Democratic primary but do in California.
“I think it’s fairly clear that he is trying to rebrand himself as a progressive now that he understands he will lose this election if does not,” said Amar Shergill, chairman of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, who is supporting one of Schiff's opponents. “He has never been a leader on progressive issues. He is a below-average Democrat that joins progressive issues only when he sees that everybody else is already there."
David Atkins, a Democratic National Committee member from California who is currently neutral in the race, praised “Schiff’s full-throated defense of democracy during the Trump era,” but said the next senator from the state should be "the strongest champions for progressive policy in the Senate, not just a good vote."
Progressive bona fides are critical in the land of Hollywood and San Francisco, where a majority of the Democrats and independent voters identify as liberal and where Sen. Bernie Sanders easily beat Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“Every candidate in this primary is going to want to tout their progressive credentials,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran California Democratic strategist. “Adam Schiff has an incredible record on the issue of saving democracy, but has belonged to moderate caucuses in the past," she said, adding she is sure he sees joining the Progressive Caucus "as a way to reassure progressive voters that he’s on their side.”
Schiff’s Los Angeles-area district — which includes Hollywood and some of the affluent suburban communities — along with the entire state and the national Democratic Party have moved to the left in the two decades since he became the first Democrat in decades to represent that seat. He did so by defeating a Republican incumbent in what was, at the time, the most expensive House race in U.S. history.
As his district got bluer, Schiff did too, embracing ideas such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He left the Blue Dog caucus a decade ago, though he still is a member of the center-left New Democrat Coalition, and his campaign said the Progressive Caucus would be a "natural home."
In a lengthy statement to NBC News that used the word “progressive” four times, Schiff suggested he is better positioned than Lee or Porter to enact the policies the entire field supports.
“Californians need a progressive champion in the Senate who can get things done, and who will work tirelessly to drive down everyday costs for working families. You can’t be progressive if you aren’t able to make progress,” he said.
His detractors on the left still don’t buy it.
A scathing review of Schiff’s record in the liberal American Prospect by its executive editor concluded that “Schiff has never passed the test.”
It points to a raft of tough-on-crime bills that Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, authored in the California state Senate in the 1990s; his votes for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; his opposition to several bills supported by labor unions, including one that prevented Transportation Security Administration personnel from unionizing; and his opposition to progressive budget goals and support for spending cuts.
“A lack of revenue, uncontrolled spending and faulty planning have put our national debt so high that putting our fiscal house in order seems out of reach,” Schiff said in a 2005 speech on the House floor promoting a Blue Dog plan to balance the budget and create a surplus “rainy-day fund," which would likely require deep cuts to numerous programs.
Critics also note Schiff has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate PACs over his career — though he’s sworn off them in the Senate race — which they say made him friendlier to industries like pharmaceuticals, noting for instance that he voted against legislation the industry opposed to crack down on so-called patent trolls.
Defenders note that several outside trackers have ranked Schiff’s recent voting record as about as progressive or even more so than that of Porter, who had her own re-election politics to consider in a district that was generally favorable to Republicans.
And Schiff allies note the majority of California representatives in the Progressive Caucus who have endorsed are currently backing Schiff, including several vice chairs.
Even some critics think Schiff's ideological evolution is earnest.
“I feel it’s for real with him, that’s my gut,” said Howie Klein, a progressive donor and blogger who lives in Schiff’s district and was one of his early supporters, before very publicly breaking with the congressman over his Iraq War vote.
Klein, a former record executive who oversaw artists such as The Talking Heads and The Ramones, said he would probably vote for Lee if the election were today, but that he would “be perfectly happy — not grudgingly happy” with all three candidates.
Privately, some on the left worry that Porter and Lee will split the progressive vote, clearing a path for Schiff.
A recent poll of California Democrats and independents found that a narrow majority — 53% — identify as liberal. Porter and Lee do best among them, while Schiff performs better with self-described moderates and among the larger majority — 69% — who say they want a candidate who is willing to compromise to get things done.
“A majority of voters in what I would consider to be their frame of likely voters are liberals,” said Mark DiCamillo, the pollster who conducted the survey for the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “But it’s also important that a candidate has their own lane. You don’t want your lane to be crowded with candidates of the same orientation, and that may be true with Porter and Lee.”