In a strange move, Steve Garvey won the debate in the US Senate in California

(Damian Dovarganes/AP)

In a strange move, Steve Garvey won the debate in the US Senate in California

California Politics

George Skelton

January 25, 2024

Donald Trump’s strong victory in the New Hampshire presidential primaries


Tuesday likely hurt fellow Republican Steve Garvey in California’s U.S. Senate race.

Let me explain that.

But first there’s another political paradox: The Republican Senate underdog was helped by his three main Democratic opponents in a televised debate on Monday evening. That’s because they attacked him and fled.

Garvey needs to get enough Republican votes in California’s March 5 primary to finish second and qualify for the November general election. And virtually nothing unites a Republican candidate and the party faithful more than Democrats attacking that candidate.

Trump has proven that.

If Democrats don’t like Garvey, he must be the right candidate for the job in the minds of many Republican voters.

Now back to New Hampshire.

What Garvey needed was a defeat of Trump or at least his remaining rival, the former governor of South Carolina. Nikki Haley finished a close second, giving her some momentum going into her primary in her home state on February 24.

South Carolina is a strong Trump area. A major victory for him there would be seen if the former president practically locks in the Republican renomination. That would be bad news for Garvey.

The former Los Angeles Dodger and San Diego Padre first baseman needs the California primary to be considered competitive to secure a large Republican vote. There will be less incentive to vote if the Republican nomination is seen as a foregone conclusion.

Republican voters outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 in California. The top two vote-getters among Senate candidates will advance to the November runoff, regardless of party affiliation. Thus, Garvey’s hopes of finishing at #1. 2 Forget No. 1 depends on a big GOP turnout.

If it were reasonably competitive here, that would help Republican turnout. When it’s all over, it won’t be good for Garvey, says veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, who managed the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaigns. It is Feinstein’s old seat that the current candidates are trying to capture.

Based on opinion polls, Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank is the frontrunner. And he probably confirmed that No. 1 position in the debate with his steady performance.

Garvey and Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine are neck-and-neck for the No. 1 spot. 2nd spot, with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) not far behind. There are many undecided voters.

The former Major League all-star received help from his Democratic opponents in the debate.

By the time the three Democrats were done with him, they were making his case to Republican voters, said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley and is a former GOP operative. Every time they criticize Garvey, they send a message to Republicans to rally behind him.

There is no way he will become a senator, Schnur adds. But he was the most important person on stage. Porter and Lee both think they can beat Schiff head-on in November. But if Garvey comes in second, they’ll never get the chance.

There’s nothing Schiff would like more than to take on Garvey.

No Republican has won a statewide race in California since 2006.

Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who is not involved in the Senate race, said Garvey was also helped by post-debate criticism in the news media for not taking clear positions on issues and questioning whether he would support Trump .

The media bashing Garvey for not having well-defined positions isn’t hurting him when it comes to Republican voters, Stutzman told me. Republican voters do not respond well to media criticism of a Republican.

They will settle for a high-profile Republican run for Senate and deliver the Republican message in November. We haven’t had that since [former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive] Carly Fiorina walked in 2010.

Look, I think Garvey is going to get some shit for not clearly stating whether he will vote for Trump. He’s done that twice already. And it will probably happen again. Both times he was the best person for the job, he said during the debate.

But Garvey refused to commit to this election.

Once a Dodger, always a Dodger, Porter claimed in one of the better lines of the night. Mr. Garvey, this isn’t the minor leagues. Who are you going to vote for?

When the time comes, Garvey replied, I will look at the two opponents, determine what they did and at that time I will make my choice.

I see this as a glass half full. Garvey deserves credit from Democrats for showing courage. He is a rare Republican candidate who has not yet fallen into a long line to kiss Trump’s ring. At least not yet.

In fact, not staying true to the Republican idol could hurt him among Trump worshipers.

As long as he doesn’t criticize Trump, Republican voters will be fine, Stutzman says. I was impressed that he took perhaps the boldest stand of any Republican Senate candidate in the United States.

But he was criticized by Democrats for vagueness.

Steve Garvey didn’t reach first base, former State Atty. General Bill Lockyer told me. He is a nice man who goes way over his head, both in politics and politics.

Terrible, says Carrick. No substance whatsoever.

But Schnur says he came across as a non-threatening Republican.

It was a good debate hosted by Fox 11 News and Politico at USC. Better than most and definitely superior to the recent Republican presidential debates.

Garvey was the winner of the debate, not on performance, but on political momentum, and a loser in New Hampshire.


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