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Can Steve Garvey Unite California Republicans in His Bid for US Senate?

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An older man and a woman sit backward in the back of a pickup truck in a parade — the man waves.
Former baseball star Steve Garvey, who last month entered the race for U.S. Senate in California, waves to the crowd during an Independence Day parade in Huntington Beach on July 4, 2023. (Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

In two of the last three U.S. Senate elections in California, the Republican Party has failed to advance a candidate out of the top-two primary to the general election — one of many electoral indignities the state GOP has suffered in its decadeslong decline.

To avoid that fate in 2024, the GOP will need to consolidate its shrinking share of the electorate around a single candidate in the March 5 primary — and hope Democrats split their allegiances among the three current frontrunners: Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee.

The Republican with perhaps the best chance to unite GOP primary voters is former baseball star Steve Garvey, whose campaign has paired a glory-days nostalgia with relatively moderate positions on issues like guns and abortion. To continue his rise in the polls and crack the top two, Garvey must now find a way to “cannibalize” conservative votes, said Mark DiCamillo, poll director for the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, which released new polling numbers on Friday.

“He would need to become the favorite among all Republicans in order to get himself higher in the polls,” DiCamillo said.

In the IGS poll, Porter stands at 17%, with Schiff at 16% and Garvey at 10%.

A former All-Star and World Series champion who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, Garvey is the highest-profile Republican to launch a Senate run in California since former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s unsuccessful bid more than a decade ago.

But Garvey, who waited until October to officially launch his campaign, now faces a sprint to introduce himself to voters, raise money and fend off two other Republicans in the race: businessman James Bradley and attorney Eric Early.

Just getting a candidate on the November ballot will be an uphill battle for Republicans in the Senate race. California has a top-two primary system, which means voters can select any candidate, regardless of political party. Only 24% of voters in the state are registered as Republicans, and the party has struggled to make inroads with independent and moderate voters.

Thus far, Republicans have divided their votes among the top three GOP contenders in the Senate race, which could dilute the Republican vote and complicate the GOP path to the general election.

While Garvey still sits outside of the top two, some of the underlying numbers are encouraging for him. Not only has he leaped ahead of Bradley (7%) and Early (4%) among likely voters, but he is the top choice among voters who identified as “strongly conservative” or “somewhat conservative.”

Most importantly, Garvey — known as “Mr. Clean” during his playing days — appears to have room to grow. The IGS poll found that roughly a third of voters who identify as “strongly conservative” or “somewhat conservative” are undecided in the race — compared with just one in five “somewhat liberal” or “strongly liberal” voters who are undecided.

Kristin Olsen, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly, said the recent speakership fight in Congress shows the challenge of uniting fractious GOP constituencies around a common purpose. But she said Garvey, due to his career on the baseball diamond, has the advantage of being well-liked and better known than the other Republicans in the race.

“I’m not sure anyone can unite the party right now,” said Olsen, now a partner at the consulting firm California Strategies. “But I do think he may have a better shot than most because of the fame and charisma.”

Garvey, who has never run for public office, could face headwinds over some of the positions he has staked out early in the campaign, which seem antithetical to the party’s right-wing base. He told KQED in October that he opposes a national ban on abortion, a view in line with the majority of California voters, who last year approved a constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights in the state. On gun safety, he supports waiting periods and “very stringent background checks” for gun purchases.

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Bradley and Early, meanwhile, have run campaigns more closely aligned to the conservative views held by their party’s grassroots. Bradley, who ran for Senate in 2018 and 2022, has vowed to target critical race theory and support “deep state investigations.”

Early, a staunch Donald Trump supporter, who ran for state attorney general in 2018 and 2022, is aiming to outflank Garvey among the party faithful. He has already picked up endorsements from county Republican parties from Yolo to Santa Barbara, and on Tuesday, he nabbed the support of the California Republican Assembly, the state’s oldest grassroots GOP organization.

“Garvey moving to the center, let’s say, runs the risk of losing Republican voters, or certainly some Republican voters, to someone who is tacking to the right, which is what Early seems to be doing,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

Sragow said Garvey can’t afford to turn off members of the party base. In recent California elections, few moderate voters have been willing to vote for Republican candidates, and Garvey may not garner enough support from those voters “to compensate for what he loses on the right,” Sragow said.

Instead of an explicit push to consolidate the Republican vote, Garvey’s campaign plans to present him as the most viable Republican candidate — both in terms of his potential to appeal to a broad range of voters and his capacity to raise ample funds for statewide advertising.

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“Eric Early has earned the respect of the political operation,” said Luis Alvarado, a GOP political strategist who is not working in the race. “But those operatives also want to win, and at the end of the day, if they see that they have an opportunity to elevate their party candidate through Steve Garvey, they’re going to decide that they’re going to coalesce around Steve Garvey.”

Many unknowns could shape the Senate-race landscape between now and the start of voting in February. An endorsement from Trump could propel any of the Republican candidates into the general election, as it did for John Cox in a crowded gubernatorial primary in 2018.

Campaign machinations unique to the top-two format could also come into play. If, for instance, Barbara Lee, a Bay Area liberal stalwart, who currently sits at 9% in the IGS poll, can chip away at support from Porter and Schiff in the coming months, Garvey’s path to the general election could become clearer.

Garvey or other Republicans could try to bolster Lee ahead of the March vote, a move similar to what Democrats did last year when they funded advertisements for Early in the attorney general primary to elevate the conservative lawyer over his moderate opponent.

“If it becomes a three-way battle among the Democrats, they could be dividing their support evenly,” DiCamillo, of the IGS poll, said. “That might even make it possible for Garvey to come in second even if his support is only in the 20% range or 25% range. So there’s a lot of variables in play.”

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