Super Tuesday: How Republican Steve Garvey could steal California Senate seat

Super Tuesday is upon us, and the golden prize up for grabs is California. Former President Donald Trump will look to burnish his credentials with a dominant delegate victory, and President Joe Biden will also aim for a dominant show. But there are plenty of intriguing down-ballot races, not least the jungle primary for former Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat, as well as for several House seats. This series, Golden State Scramble, will look at all of the above and more. Part 2 takes a closer look at Republican Senate hopeful Steve Garvey.

In the crowded California primary race to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Steve Garvey, a former baseball star turned Republican pitchman, is making waves not only because of his celebrity status but because of how little he’s actually campaigned and how many supporters he already seems to have. 

Despite flirting with a Senate run in the early 1980s, the charismatic first baseman, often seen signing autographs on the sidelines and mugging for pictures, isn’t your typical politician. He’s skipped community forums and has been a serial no-show at other political events. 

Former San Diego Padres Steve Garvey before a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday, June 29, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

During the televised debates, the 75-year-old political novice bypassed the post-debate spin room with reporters and has collected only a sliver of what the other candidates seeking the U.S. Senate seat have pulled in. 

In fact, Garvey has done pretty much the polar opposite of what the other candidates are doing, and yet he is in a position to deliver a political blow to Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) in Tuesday’s “jungle primary,” where the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Former baseball player Steve Garvey speaks during a televised debate for candidates in the senate race on Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Garvey could walk away with one of two spots that may put him in a head-to-head contest with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in November. On the eve of the primary, the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies released a final poll showing Garvey barely leading the pack, with support from 27% of likely voters, followed by Schiff at 25%. Porter fell to third with 19%.

The person helping Garvey the most ahead of the March 5 primary is Schiff himself, who has spent $10 million in attack ads against Garvey, claiming he’s “too conservative” for California. 

Despite the Golden State being Pacific blue, there are a growing number of red pockets that may turn to Garvey as the anti-Schiff candidate. Schiff’s ads have given Garvey free publicity and signaled to Republicans that his views align best with theirs. Schiff’s team also knows that in a head-to-head with Garvey in November, Schiff will most likely win, but if he is forced to run against Porter, it may mean many more months of intra-party fighting and fundraising that could be spent on vulnerable Democrats in other key races.  

Candidates, from left, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and former baseball player Steve Garvey, stand on stage during a televised debate for candidates in the senate race to succeed the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

“Schiff is running not just his own campaign but Garvey’s too,” Jim Newton, an opinion writer for CalMatters.org, recently wrote.

“It’s painfully difficult to take Garvey seriously as a candidate for anything,” he added. “He has no path to victory, no coherent set of ideas, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense. He gets lost in his own answers and projects a novel mixture of arrogance and nearly complete ignorance of any issues that calls for reasoning. And yet, this political klutz is paving the way for Schiff to win the seat vacated by the legendary Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death last year.”

Newton noted that while Schiff has taken aim at Garvey for voting for former President Donald Trump twice and has linked him to Trump’s border wall, the “criticisms” actually raise Garvey’s profile among Republican voters in the state. 

“Since Garvey has little money, or ability of his own, Schiff’s attacks are the best thing going for him,” Newton said.  

The strategy appears to be working. 

Porter’s campaign has been struggling for cash and is millions of dollars behind Schiff. Her campaign announced it would be holding a fire sale for her fundraising list, an unusual move during the final stretch of a campaign. Prices for past donors start at $.65 each, per Politico, which has seen the list. 

Another thorn in Porter’s side is election turnout.

“This is a low-interest, low-turnout kind of election cycle,” Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., a research firm that closely tracks voting trends and works with Democrats, independent candidates, and academics, said.

Mitchell said it’s possible Garvey ends up with the highest total as Schiff and Porter splinter votes on the left. 

“I don’t see a surge of Democratic turnout coming in the end, but there could be a surge of Republican voters in the end,” Mitchell added. 

As for Garvey, he hasn’t been shy about leaning into his baseball legend status.

The one-time National League MVP played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. He was officially enshrined as a “Legend of Dodger Baseball,” and the San Diego Padres retired his No. 6 jersey in 1988. 

FILE – Former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey waves to fans prior to a baseball game on Saturday, June 1, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

“A Giants fan came up to me and said, ‘Garvey, I hate the Dodgers, but I’ll vote for you,’” Garvey said.

All of this added attention has also shined a spotlight on some skeletons in Garvey’s closet, including multiple lawsuits, acrimonious divorces, and torrid love affairs that made him fodder for comics and turned his life into biting bumper stickers in the 1980s. One bumper sticker that read “Honk if You’re Carrying Steve Garvey’s Baby” has come back into circulation. 

Garvey is also estranged from three of his seven children, who told the Los Angeles Times that his public image of being a “devoted family man” doesn’t pass muster.  

FILE – San Diego Padres Steve Garvey, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, greet some of his loyal fans at Dodger Stadium on April 16, 1983 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon, File)

“In our childhoods, multiple efforts were made through attorneys to arrange a meeting or even a phone call with Mr. Garvey, but he declined every opportunity,” two of his children who were born out of wedlock said in a statement.

His eldest child, Krisha Garvey, said he cut her off for unknown reasons more than a decade ago. 

“There’s something lacking in him, something not authentic,” she told the newspaper. “I wouldn’t want the people of California to buy into that just because he hit a ball really well.”

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While Garvey has shied away from addressing specific allegations from his children, he has referenced “challenges” in his earlier life. 

“The lessons learned about personal accountability and integrity have made a profound, lasting impact on my life,” he said. 

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