The incumbent? James E. Rogan, a second-term Republican who had just voted to impeach President Bill Clinton and who served as one of the House managers who tried the case in the Senate.
It would become the most expensive House race in history, up to that point, and it would receive personal attention from Clinton and every big donor in each party.
A rising star still searching for her first rung on the leadership ladder, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a contingent of California Democrats who helped recruit Schiff and then provided steady fundraising and strategic advice.
Now, almost 20 years after Schiff’s big win, that race still serves as a foundational moment for the man who will oversee Wednesday’s testimony of Robert S. Mueller III as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Many Democrats hope the former special counsel’s testimony about the investigation into President Trump will galvanize the public to support impeachment proceedings.
Schiff, like Pelosi, has been among those resisting that push from liberal activists to impeach Trump, particularly if it would likely fall along fault lines, similar to the hyperpartisan 1998 effort.
“I do know how divisive and consequential the process is. I saw that in 2000,” Schiff said in an interview. Considering today’s political environment, Schiff said impeachment would be “largely partisan in nature because one party has become a cult of the person.”
Rogan, back in 1998, faced similar questions about presidential behavior and reached a different conclusion. A former prosecutor serving on the House Judiciary Committee, he studied every impeachment case considered in Congress, from presidents to federal judges, and believed the precedent was clear.
He told his constituents that Clinton’s lies under oath about his affair with a White House intern were “dead-bang evidence of perjury, subornation of perjury, and obstruction of justice” that were high crimes.
“Because we impeached Clinton, every future president is on notice that perjury and obstruction of justice is a one-way White House eviction notice,” Rogan recounted in a recent email interview. “As long as a future Congress has the spine to stand up to him.”
Now a state judge, Rogan is forbidden from discussing deeply political matters, and he mostly avoids talking about his own congressional races.
In December 1998, as the committee and then full House considered Clinton’s actions, polls showed voters favored a symbolic rebuke such as a censure resolution without removing the popular president from office.
“Had I voted for censure instead of impeachment, there was a strong possibility I would have been reelected in my heavily Democratic district — and I knew it at the time,” Rogan said.
House GOP leaders, just as Pelosi has said recently, opposed censure as unconstitutional, and Rogan in early 1999 joined 12 other Republicans from the Judiciary panel prosecuting the case in the Senate’s impeachment trial that ended in a 50-50 deadlock.
Schiff, who lost to Rogan in a 1994 run for state assembly, entered the race in March 1999. The political arms race took off as the GOP incumbent spent more than $6.8 million while Schiff spent more than $4.3 million.
Millions and millions more poured in from outside groups.
Clinton hosted a Washington fundraiser for Schiff, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned for Rogan. Barbra Streisand donated to the Democrat, Oliver Stone to the Republican.
The media coverage grew so intense voters were afraid to open their doors when Schiff or Rogan showed up, often with TV cameras from national media there to portray the race as a national referendum on Clinton’s impeachment.
Rogan said voters were overwhelmingly against impeachment, but Schiff thought “the district was evenly split.” Regardless, in another echo of today’s political environment, the candidates largely avoided discussing impeachment because everyone had made up their mind on Clinton’s behavior.
“Impeachment drove a lot of the money from around the country, but impeachment was not the issue in the district. This is something that’s little understood about our race. Neither one of us brought it up,” Schiff said.
Schiff focused on open space and mass transit issues, while portraying Rogan as beholden to the National Rifle Association. Rogan positioned himself as a moderate Republican and picked apart Schiff’s votes in the state Senate to paint him as a far-left liberal.
“I remember it was a liberal, liberal, liberal: Adam Schiff voted to let felons drive school buses,” Schiff said, recalling one attack ad.
Rogan eventually felt he had to address the elephant in the room. He aired an ad acknowledging he had made “my Democrat friends angry when I supported impeachment” but then pivoted to talk about other times he stood up to GOP leaders.
Schiff’s victory, by almost 10 percentage points, provided a symbolic win on an otherwise terrible night for Democrats, with Republicans winning the White House and retaining control of Congress.
By 2018, as he campaigned for Democrats around the country, Schiff told them to steer clear of impeachment and Trump just as he had done against Rogan.
“Don’t talk about Russia. Let me talk about Russia. That’s the committee responsibility,” Schiff said, urging them to focus on other issues. “You should talk about what you’re doing to put food on the table.”
When Democrats claimed the majority in January, impeachment turned into a real possibility. Schiff’s Intelligence Committee held several high-profile hearings, but none will be as big as Wednesday’s Mueller appearance, coming after the former FBI director appears before the Judiciary Committee.
He dismisses some liberal criticism that high-profile Democrats like he and Pelosi should be openly advocating for impeachment. “We need to bring out the facts and determine whether embarking on impeachment is the right thing to do,” he said.
Despite their intense race and their sharply different views on impeachment, Rogan and Schiff have remained on friendly terms. In 2010, Rogan read about an impeachment trial of a corrupt federal judge, who was being tried in the Senate and was later convicted on unanimous bipartisan vote. He cut out the clip and mailed it to Schiff, who was serving as the lead impeachment manager in the Senate.
“Dear Adam,” Rogan wrote to his onetime rival. “Ahhhhh! I see we stand on the shoulders of the great men who went before us!”