Garvey stands out in the California Senate debate. Not in a good way

(Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Garvey stands out in the California Senate debate. Not in a good way

Elections 2024, California politics

Mark Z. Barabak

January 23, 2024

If you agree with your political opponents 90% or more of the time, how do you stand out?

That was the challenge facing three Democrats who took the stage for the first televised California state debate of the highly competitive, hugely expensive U.S. Senate contest.

The answer: seize those relatively few differences and emphasize them loudly and repeatedly. Add a strong overlay of anecdote and personal story. Throw an elbow every now and then, for good measure.

If you’ve been following the Senate race closely, you would have easily recognized the Democratic candidates who gathered on a red, white and blue sound stage on USC’s campus Monday night.

If you haven’t already, it didn’t take long to get the gist of it.

A conscious Representative Adam Schiff shared how he personally took on former President Trump as a leading tormentor in Congress and that he is a doer, not just a talker.

An impassioned Rep. Barbara Lee presented her history as a progressive with a long history in Sacramento and Washington and the lived experience of a single Black mother who was once homeless and raised her children on food stamps.

A vocal representative Katie Porter highlighted her case as

the A

plague of corporate interests that Washington wants to shake up


is not one of those career politicians who promise much and deliver little. (As did Schiff and Lee, she claimed, each with more than two decades in Congress. Porter was elected in 2018.)



was not difficult for the only Republican among them, Steve Garvey, the former baseball great and (it was obvious) a political novice.

Garvey would be irrelevant in the Senate race, but not for the state’s election system


in which the top two winners from the March 5 primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation. That makes the fight for second place almost as important as the fight for first place.

Garvey has little to no chance of winning the Senate seat, given the weakened state of the Republican Party in California and its poor image among the state’s Democratic-leaning electorate. But by consolidating Republican support, the party has more than five million registered voters in California, more than the population of many states that Garvey could easily reach in November’s runoff.

His performance Monday night was something of a political debut, and a shaky one at that.

Garvey faces a dilemma: Trying to appease the Trump-loving Republican base without alienating the much larger number of Californians who loathe the ex-president. Even the most deft politician would be hard-pressed to pull that off, and Garvey himself proved anything but.

He voted for Trump twice and, after being repeatedly pressed for an answer Monday evening, strongly indicated he would do so again. However, Garvey declined to say that directly, instead offering this: “Ultimately, it’s all a personal choice. As my personal choice I will make it in the sovereignty of wherever it is and that is my personal choice. .”

He also stumbled when asked about the abortion issue. Although Garvey personally opposes the procedure, he said he would support reproductive rights as a U.S. senator. “The people of California have spoken and I promise to support that vote,” he said.

The debate’s co-moderator, Politico’s Melanie Mason, followed up by asking whether Garvey would similarly defer to the will of most Californians who strongly support stricter gun laws and oppose Trump’s return to office.

More word salad.

“Well, I obviously have my opinions,” Garvey said. ‘And with common sense, compassion and the ability to reach consensus. You know, I’m looking at the whole issue. I think I’m being honest.’

Throughout the night, Garvey was vague on most issues and downright confusing on others. At one point he suggested that the solution to California’s housing affordability crisis would be to curb excessive spending in Washington and open up “the gas and oil pipes” to lower energy costs.

Will the action cost Garvey many voters? That’s not clear.

He displayed an affable, awe-inspiring style reminiscent of the political hero he called, Ronald Reagan, who easily

to survive

survived his share of blunders by delivering them in an equally soothing, fatherly style.

Will earmarks decide Senate race?

It was one of the major points of contention among Democrats, with Porter renouncing the practice of lawmakers spending federal funding on


specific, often beloved projects, and Lee and Schiff both defend the process.

“Honour marks,” Porter insisted, “is


just now


A nice word for politicians who put their personal interests in place of our needs.”

“I believe in earmarks,” Lee said. “I believe in not neglecting my duty.”

Will the war between Hamas and Israel prove decisive? (Elections rarely decide foreign policy.)

Lee’s early call for a ceasefire

The Gaza fire set her apart from both Schiff and Porter, and she repeated that on Monday night. “The only way to keep Israel safe is through a permanent ceasefire,” Lee said.

Schip disagreed. Hamas “is still holding more than a hundred hostages, including Americans. I don’t know how you can ask a country to cease fire when its people are being held by a terrorist organization.”

“A ceasefire is not a magic word,” Porter said. “You can’t say it and make it so.”

Listen closely, and there were even more differences.

Lee and Porter both supported a system of government-run, universal health care. Schiff said he supported “Medicare for all,” but allowed those who preferred their private health care to keep it.

The debate was the first of three planned televised sessions.

Maybe the next two

will do more to settle some yawning differences among leading Democrats. Otherwise, it seems likely that the battle for the Senate will be decided on style rather than substance.

And because this is California, the candidate has the necessary financial resources to reach the millions of voters who don’t want to pay attention to their debates.


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