Garvey effect: how a Republican outsider became a solid U.S. Senate contender

Garvey effect: how a Republican outsider became a solid U.S. Senate contender

How is it that a Republican Senate candidate with vague policy plans and no political experience has a strong shot at making it through the primary election and onto the November ballot in deep blue California?

Former Dodgers player Steve Garvey has surprised Democrats and delighted conservatives with his popularity in the race thus far — even as his competitors accuse him of failing to articulate a clear vision for accomplishing his agenda.

Former California baseball player Steve Garvey stands up at a televised debate for candidates in the Senate race on Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. Baseball star Garvey’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate has brought a splash of celebrity to the race that has alarmed his Democratic rivals and tugged at the state’s political gravity. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) 

While Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) leads the polls, recent data shows Garvey in a close competition with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) to clinch second place in the March 5 primary election and advance to the November general election. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) trails in fourth place and Republican attorney Eric Early is in last.

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The secret to Garvey’s success: part star power and style, part favorable odds and political climate, experts say.

Garvey will be the first to admit the cachet of his celebrity appeal. Fourteen seasons with the Dodgers, five with the Padres, ten all star seasons and a World Series championship have made him a household name across the state and country.

“By playing with great players and managers and having lots of passionate fans, I developed this currency of millions of people knowing who I am,” he said in an interview. “The currency of that trust and friendship with the people is why I’m running today.”

Former Los Angeles Dodgers great Steve Garvey prior to game two of a World Series baseball game against the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG) 

Then there is also the benefit of simple math. Garvey strongly profits from the Democratic vote being split between Schiff, Porter and Lee in the primary.

“On a statewide poll in California if you have an ‘R’ behind your name, it’s sort of like wearing the scarlet letter,” said Joel Fox, adjunct professor at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. “The rules are a little different for the primary, especially if you’re in a contested primary where there’s a lot of Democrats running.”

Garvey does face a Republican competitor in attorney Eric Early. However, between Garvey’s early popularity and Early’s track record of failed campaigns, Republicans are largely rallying behind the former Dodger, Fox added.

There is also the matter of the approximately 20% of undecided voters, many of whom are moderates or independents.

Garvey, for his part, believes he has a strong case to make to this population.

“I think I resonate with independents and libertarians,” he said. “I also think we are going to get some moderate Democrat votes. There are many moderate Democrats who are disillusioned with their party and I think that they’ll say, ‘Steve is somebody we know, we trust’.”

Another segment where Garvey stands to pick up votes is with Latinos, a population California candidates have historically struggled to mobilize. Latinos make up 36% of the state’s adult population, but just 25% of likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, report that 43% of their fan base is Latino, giving Garvey a good opening to make his campaign pitch.

“I’ve had this wonderful friendship with the Hispanic community, especially with the Hispanic grandmas and grandpas and moms and dads, who love baseball and are Catholic, which are things we have in common,” he said. “These hard-working people are the ones who are hurting the most right now and they’re the ones that are most passionate about their family and their faith.”

Matt Lesenyie, professor of political science at CSU Long Beach, said that Garvey has a good chance of appealing to working class Black and Latino voters in the primary if he focuses on “kitchen table issues” like gas prices, grocery costs and family values.

“Garvey also has an advantage of being more conservative on social issues as racial minorities tend to be more religious,” said Lesenyie. “I would argue there is a way for him to campaign on cultural and religious themes.”

In addition, Garvey stands to gain votes from the simple fact that he is an outsider running against three career politicians.

“One American tradition, just like apple pie, is distrust of political elites,” said Lesenyie. “I would argue that is baked into our politics.”

Based on his celebrity appeal and outsider status alone, Lesenyie gives Garvey a 50-50 chance of making it through the primary.

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But success in a general election is a different ball game than the primaries. And star power can only take a conservative-leaning candidate so far, as the failed candidacies of Kaitlyn Jenner for California governor and Rick Caruso for mayor of Los Angeles have shown.

Fox says Garvey’s chances of success in a general election are low, but cautions against predicting a Democratic landslide. Many of the issues that Garvey is campaigning on — homelessness, crime rates, border policy, cost of living — are top of mind for California residents and could play in  Garvey’s favor if they continue to heat up as the election approaches, he said.

“Everyone is saying, ‘If Garvey finishes in the top two (in the primary) that means the Democrats are going to win in November.’ Well, I understand that thinking, but I’m what I’m arguing is, depending on the the politics of the moment, it may close things up a little bit,” said Fox.

Even if Garvey loses in November, the Republican party stands to benefit from having his name on the ballot if he motivates more Republicans to turn out. That could provide pivotal votes in battleground seats as the party fights to hold onto their slim majority in the House.

However, Fox said, Garvey’s ability to draw voters will hinge on being able to communicate how he would effectuate his policy goals in office. Something he struggled with in the recent candidate debate.

“Is he going to project as a strong candidate on the issues that Californians have expressed over the last couple of years they’re concerned about?” said Fox. “If he does that, he can move up (in the primary) and he can move the whole party up. If he doesn’t meet those standards, then it’s just a one and done effort.”

“That means he strikes out.”