Elections

Former LA Dodger Steve Garvey aims for the wall in U.S. Senate race

Former LA Dodger Steve Garvey aims for the wall in U.S. Senate race

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Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey, a former Los Angeles Dodgers baseball player, tosses a baseball to supporters at his election night watch party on March 5 in Palm Desert, Calif.

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Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey, a former Los Angeles Dodgers baseball player, tosses a baseball to supporters at his election night watch party on March 5 in Palm Desert, Calif.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the 1970s and ’80s, baseball fans got used to Steve Garvey smashing winning home runs and clutch hits in key games, leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series victory in 1981. In a baseball career spanning nearly two decades, Garvey was named MVP for the Dodgers and, later, the San Diego Padres.

Now the former first baseman is headed to a very different kind of competition, a runoff election for an open U.S. Senate seat in California against Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff.

Garvey is hoping to become the first Republican elected to represent California in the Senate since 1988. That won’t be easy in a state where registered Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one.

A political outsider hopes to leverage discontent

Marva Diaz, a political strategist who owns California Target Book, a nonpartisan publication tracking elections in California, says while Garvey hit a home run in the primary, a low turnout affair that skewed older and more Republican, that was the easy part.

“November is a whole new ballgame, right? That turnout is going to be different. There are different things on the ballot that they’re going to be turning out for,” said Diaz, suggesting that a larger November voter turnout will help Schiff.

Adding to his challenges, Diaz says the RNC is unlikely to spend major amounts of money on a long shot campaign like Garvey’s when there are other more competitive races they are facing in November.

Yet Lanhee Chen, who ran an unsuccessful bid as the Republican candidate for California’s state controller two years ago, says Garvey’s emergence despite his odds is significant.

“His candidacy represents something very different, I think, for California Republicans,” said Chen, who is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Chen thinks Garvey can win over undecided voters by appealing to their dissatisfaction with politics as usual. In a recent poll from the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, 57% of voters think the state is “off on the wrong track.”

“He also has an opportunity, I think, to draw a line on issues that (are) probably a little bit more centrist, a little bit closer to the median California voter,” he added.

At a debate earlier this year he said he would vote against a national ban on abortions. Yet Garvey has not provided a lot of specifics on other policy positions, focusing instead on trying to evoke nostalgia for what he sees as a prior golden era, promising a return to the “good old days.”

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Steve Garvey of the Los Angeles Dodgers bats against the New York Yankees during the World Series at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in October of 1981.

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Steve Garvey of the Los Angeles Dodgers bats against the New York Yankees during the World Series at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in October of 1981.

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Garvey often notes that when he came to California in the 1960s, the state was “the heartbeat of America, but now it’s just a murmur.”

“That was a Beach Boys era in Southern California history,” said GOP consultant Mike Madrid, an ardent opponent of former President Trump’s brand of Republicanism and a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, adding that the state’s 1960s era no longer resonates with as many Californians.

“With the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sort of transcended partisan politics, that Republican ceiling has remained remarkably consistent for the better part of 25 years,” said Madrid, referring to the actor turned Republican governor.

Garvey faces long odds to ‘get back in the game’

In October, the low profile Garvey kept at his home near Palm Springs was interrupted when he released a video announcing a run for the U.S. Senate, promising to run a “common sense campaign” for the seat held by Dianne Feinstein until her death last year.

“It’s time to get off the bench,” he says in the video. “It’s time to put the uniform back on. It’s time to get back in the game.”

Garvey entered a race dominated by three Democrats already representing California in Congress, Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff.

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Candidates, from left, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and former baseball player Steve Garvey, stand on stage during a televised debate Jan. 22 in Los Angeles.

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Candidates, from left, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and former baseball player Steve Garvey, stand on stage during a televised debate Jan. 22 in Los Angeles.

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As the only Republican when the candidates first faced off on the debate stage in January, Garvey sought to portray himself as a pragmatic, moderate Republican.

But there was one problem with that portrayal. He voted for Donald Trump twice.

In a state where President Biden beat Trump by about 30 points in 2020, that matters. His support for Trump hounded him at all three debates before the March primary. When asked if he would vote for Trump against President Biden, Garvey replied, “I will look at the two opponents, I will determine what they did, and at that time I will make my choice,”

That prompted this sarcastic response from Congresswoman Porter.

“Well California, I think what they say is true. ‘Once a Dodger, always a Dodger,'” receiving laughs from the debate audience.

But Schiff, who built a national reputation as the former president’s leading adversary in Congress during his time as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, saw Garvey’s earlier support for Trump as an opportunity.

Under California’s primary system, the top two finishers in the March primary will face off in November, regardless of party. And Schiff – who led in pre-election polls – knew that facing the Republican Garvey would be a much easier lift than a runoff against another Democrat.

Schiff proceeded to spend millions of dollars on television ads that highlighted Garvey’s votes for Trump and claimed that Garvey is “too conservative for California.”

The ads helped raise his profile among Republicans, elevating Garvey over other GOP candidates on the primary ballot. Porter argued that the ads actually helped consolidate Republican votes for Garvey, a view widely shared by campaign professionals.

And it worked, perhaps even better than Schiff could have imagined. Not only did it boost Garvey into the top two and a November runoff, as ballots continue to be counted, Garvey and Schiff are nearly tied for first place in two separate races for the open senate seat.

In November, voters have two Senate elections to decide on, first who will finish the rest of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term and second who will fill a full six-year term starting in January 2025.

Following Super Tuesday’s primary results, Schiff and Garvey are the top two candidates for both elections.

On election night following the primary, Garvey wasted no time celebrating the outcome – with yet more baseball metaphors.

“What you are feeling tonight is what it’s like to hit a walk off home run. Keep in mind, this is the first game of a doubleheader, so keep the evening of November 5th open,” Garvey said.