Former baseball star Garvey faces Democratic Rep. Schiff, and long odds, for California Senate seat

Photos of U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., at left, a U.S Senate candidate, and his Republican opponent Steve Garvey flash on a television screen during an election night party for Schiff, Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Photos of U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., at left, a U.S Senate candidate, and his Republican opponent Steve Garvey flash on a television screen during an election night party for Schiff, Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Republican former baseball star Steve Garvey secured a U.S. Senate showdown with Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff on a shoestring budget and with a wispy campaign schedule, but he now faces a daunting question: What’s next?

Garvey, a perennial All-Star who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, expressed optimism about the campaign to come for the seat once occupied by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Still, heavily Democratic California hasn’t elected a GOP Senate candidate since 1988, a year after Garvey retired from baseball. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a 2-to-1 margin, and Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the Legislature and congressional delegation.

“They say in the general election that we’re going to strike out,” Garvey, a first-time candidate, said of his doubters. “Know this: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

It’s a rare opportunity for the GOP to compete in a marquee statewide race in this Democratic stronghold.

Garvey was able to consolidate the Republican vote and sidestep two established Democratic House members, Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, to gain one of two slots on the November ballot with Schiff. His first job will be raising money to operate in a state with some of the nation’s most expensive media markets, but he’s likely to find it a tough sell with donors inclined to spend their money in more competitive states, with control of the House and Senate on the line.

Garvey’s low-key campaign and limited public appearances worked for him in the primary, but voters will be expecting more in a general election. While famously liberal California showed signs of a possible shift to the political right — San Francisco voters showed strong support for a pair of ballot measures that expand police powers and compel treatment for adult welfare recipients who use illegal drugs — Garvey remains a long shot.

“He’s going to have to pitch a positive vision for how he would represent the state,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “You can’t sit out a campaign and expect to have any shot in the general election if you are in the minority party in this state.”

Garvey “is going to have to move beyond the baseball metaphors … if he really wants to win,” Kousser added.

Garvey celebrated Tuesday with cheering supporters at a hotel in Palm Desert, his hometown, where he warned Schiff not to underestimate him despite the state’s Democratic tilt. He said he would run a campaign that would appeal across party lines, focusing on inflation, the state’s unchecked homeless crisis and rising crime rates in cities.

California puts all candidates, regardless of party, on the same primary ballot and the two who get the most votes advance to the general election. The GOP has failed to advance a candidate to the general election in two of California’s last three U.S. Senate races.

And Garvey will be on the ballot with a GOP presidential ticket likely headed by former President Donald Trump, who is widely unpopular in California outside his loyal base. The last time a Republican won a statewide race of any kind in California was 2006.

The matchup also means that California won’t have a woman in the Senate for the first time in more than three decades.

Schiff enters the race a strong favorite, but he has challenges of his own. His victory party was marred by raucous protesters who shouted “Free Palestine” and “Cease-fire now,” forcing the congressman to attempt to speak over them as they continued bellowing. Schiff took several pauses, and he appeared to hurry his remarks.

Schiff, who has been outspoken in support of Israel’s right to defend itself, shifted Tuesday and endorsed the Biden administration’s call for a Gaza cease-fire as part of a broader agreement that would include the release of hostages. “My position is the same as the administration,” Schiff said. The chaotic scene was a reminder that even in a strongly Democratic state, he will have to carefully navigate the continuing Israel-Hamas war.

He also faces the task of mending relations with supporters of Porter and Lee, two well-known progressives.

The campaign nonetheless represents a new era in California politics, which was long dominated by Feinstein and a handful of other veteran politicians.

Garvey and Schiff also advanced to the November ballot in the race to fill the remainder of Feinstein’s term, following the general election. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, a longtime Democratic organizer, to serve out Feinstein’s term, and Butler chose not to seek election to the seat. The winner of the November election would serve a truncated term through early January, when the full, six-year term would begin.

The race is California’s first open U.S. Senate contest since 2016. Even before Feinstein announced in early 2023 she would not seek reelection, many of the state’s ambitious Democrats were eagerly awaiting their shot at the coveted seat.

Garvey’s candidacy, buoyed by name recognition among older voters in particular, threw an unexpected twist into the race. The dynamic between Schiff and Porter grew increasingly tense in the campaign’s closing weeks as both vied for a general election spot.

Garvey notched his spot on the fall ballot by positioning himself as an outsider running against entrenched Washington insiders.

He owes a debt of thanks to Schiff and supportive super political action committees, which ran millions of dollars in advertising spotlighting Garvey’s conservative credentials, which indirectly boosted his visibility among Republican and right-leaning voters.

Garvey is hoping to follow a pathway cut by other famous athletes-turned-politicians that includes former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a one-time bodybuilder and actor who became the last Republican to hold the state’s top job; Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, a former NFL player; and former professional basketball great Bill Bradley, who became a long-serving U.S. senator in New Jersey.

He calls himself a “conservative moderate” and argues he should not be buttonholed into conventional labels, such as Trump’s Make America Great Again political movement.

Garvey has twice voted for Trump, who lost California in landslides but remains popular among GOP voters, but he has said he hasn’t made up his mind about this year’s presidential contest. He personally opposes abortion rights but does not support a nationwide abortion ban and will “always uphold the voice of the people,” alluding to the state’s longstanding tilt in favor of abortion rights.

He also had to overcome the resurfacing of tawdry details about his private life, including having two children with women he wasn’t married to, that had undercut the clean-cut public persona he cultivated in his Dodger days.

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Associated Press writer Sophie Austin in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.

AP Politics

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