Former Dodgers all-star Steve Garvey’s quixotic campaign for the U.S. Senate seat once held by the late Dianne Feinstein appears likely to pay off in Tuesday’s California primary. Despite his barely there strategy — Garvey held few public events and did not pay for a single television ad — polls show the Republican is on the cusp of winning one of the top two spots in the nonpartisan primary and advancing to the general election.

Political experts say Garvey was buoyed by two forces: fame from his nearly two decades playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, including the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series victory, and a multimillion-dollar ad blitz by his opponent, Democratic front-runner Rep. Adam B. Schiff and his allies, that boosted Garvey’s standing among GOP voters.

Schiff (D-Burbank) benefits if Garvey advances to the November election because of California’s overwhelming Democratic tilt. Garvey faces little chance of winning in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican statewide since 2006. Still, his name on the November ballot could help the GOP if it boosts Republicans in tight congressional races that will be decisive in determining control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He has become a vessel of opportunity for Schiff to avoid a tough November race” against a fellow Democrat, said veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, a former advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Now having said that, it’s also great for Republicans — they are much better off with a Senate candidate in the fall for down-ballot races.”

News that Garvey had been meeting with GOP donors and leaders around the state as he pondered a potential Senate bid leaked out last spring. He took months to officially announce that he was running for the seat, prompting head-scratching among political insiders because of the amount of money that needs to be raised to run a statewide campaign in California, home to some of the most expensive media markets in the nation.

Once Garvey entered the race, he did not mount a traditional campaign. He hasn’t held any big rallies or public meet-and-greets with voters around the state. He spent no money on television ads, never rented a campaign bus and declined to do endorsement interviews with California’s major newspapers, including The Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.

In the final weekend before election day, the leading Democrats running for the Senate seat barnstormed the state, with Schiff holding seven public events, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland attending four and Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine participating in two. As his Democratic opponents seized the last opportunity to woo voters, Garvey was at home in Palm Desert, visible to the public only through TV ads paid for by Schiff and his supporters and a brief Fox News interview.

Schiff’s political ads portray Garvey both as a loyalist of former President Trump and the Democratic candidate’s greatest threat in the California Senate race. While those appear to be attacks on Garvey, they probably will increase his appeal to California Republicans and allow him to secure enough votes in the March 5 primary to advance to the fall election.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary, regardless of their political party, will face off in November. A recent poll shows that, in a one-on-one matchup, Schiff would have a much easier time defeating Garvey than Porter, a fellow Democrat.

Garvey’s campaign dismissed the notion that he has not been publicly engaged and that Schiff’s messaging helped the Republican’s candidacy.

He has been reaching out to voters through talk radio and local and conservative media. He was mentioned in those forums 4,920 times in the last month, according to a report by Cision, a media tracking firm. On Friday, Garvey appeared on Fox News, Newsmax, NewsNation and talk radio in Fresno.

“What @AdamSchiff, pundits, and insiders don’t want to admit and will come up with a million excuses to explain away — my campaign has had momentum since I announced — and ONLY because of my 50-year relationship with Californians and that I care about their issues,” Garvey tweeted Saturday.

Earlier this year, Garvey visited the U.S.-Mexico border, participated in three televised debates and held brief campaign events focused on homelessness in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

In those settings he was often unable to give specific answers to questions from reporters. As he stood outside a San Diego homeless shelter in January, Garvey was asked about his lack of policy prescriptions for the unhoused, an issue that is front of mind for Californians. “Once we get through the primary, I’ll start a deeper dive into the [issues],” he said.

“I haven’t been at this very long, so you got to give me a little bit of leeway here.”

Garvey’s strategy to date is one that may be seen in a legislative contest, not one that’s typical for a statewide candidate trying to reach nearly 22 million voters.

The last two prominent Republicans who ran for governor and senator in California — Meg Whitman (no longer a member of the GOP) and Carly Fiorina — had sprawling campaigns, at times approaching presidential-level operations. They held meticulously staged events around the state with well-known Republicans such as New Jersey’s then-Gov. Chris Christie and Arizona’s then-Sen. John McCain flying into California to stump for them in 2010.

The state’s voter registration has shifted sharply to the left since then, but even lesser-known Republican candidates have barnstormed the state with attention-grabbing campaign tactics. Businessman John Cox stumped with a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear named Tag and an 8-foot ball of garbage when he ran in the gubernatorial recall election in 2021. Neel Kashkari smashed a wind-up toy train and handed out gas cards to protest high-speed rail during his 2014 run for governor.

The last two celebrities to run for statewide office in California — Schwarzenegger in 2003 and 2006 and Caitlyn Jenner in the 2021 recall election — ran far more publicly engaging campaigns than Garvey. Schwarzenegger entered politics after years as a bodybuilding champion and movie star. Jenner gained fame as an Olympic athlete — then known as Bruce Jenner — before becoming a reality TV personality and going public as transgender.

Charles Moran, president of Log Cabin Republicans, the main Republican LGBTQ+ organization, chalked it up to a personality difference between Garvey and his predecessors.

“You can see the difference in the desire to go out there,” he said.

A key question is whether Garvey’s minimal public engagement with voters and the mainstream California media will change if he makes the general election, said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine.

“When he has appeared in public, he’s stayed very general and talked in very broad terms on most of the issues he’s been asked about. That’s either because he doesn’t know the answers or because he and his team recognize the need to balance between attracting support from hard-line conservatives and also reaching out beyond the base,” Schnur said. “It’s starting to look like we’ll have eight months to find out.”



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