Steve Garvey’s Improbable Rise, Decades After His Baseball Heyday - The World News

Steve Garvey’s Improbable Rise, Decades After His Baseball Heyday

For months after Steve Garvey joined the race for the Senate seat formerly held by Dianne Feinstein, voters in California were only dimly aware he was a candidate. A Republican long shot in a deeply Democratic state, the former Major League Baseball star seemed to be courting tens of millions of Californians in stealth mode: Scant press. Vague stances. No ads to speak of.

Then Representative Adam B. Schiff stepped in.

On Tuesday, after a blitz of campaign ads that essentially allowed Mr. Schiff to choose his general election opponent, voters in the California primary vaulted Mr. Garvey, 75, into a November runoff for a prized Senate seat representing the nation’s most populous state. He will face Mr. Schiff, 63, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who has raised more than $30 million and has been the front-runner for months.

Mr. Schiff is a 12-term congressman who led the prosecution in former President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. Mr. Garvey is a career .294 hitter with 272 home runs and 1,308 runs batted in over 19 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in the 1970s and 1980s.

Known in his sports heyday as a clean-cut role model, Mr. Garvey has leveraged his reputation since then by appearing in infomercials, giving motivational speeches and recording $149 Cameo greetings. He has long expressed a desire to run for public office, despite the hurdle of some highly publicized marital, financial and legal woes in his past.

He was late to the Senate race, announcing his candidacy in October, long after Mr. Schiff had started campaigning and shoring up support from the state Democratic establishment, including an endorsement from Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House. By that time, the conventional wisdom was that the primary would result in Mr. Schiff facing another Democrat — either Representative Katie Porter or Representative Barbara Lee — in the November general election to fill the office Ms. Feinstein held for more than 30 years.

Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2 to 1 in California, and voters have not elected a Republican in a statewide race since Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor in 2006. But Republican Party leaders were eager to field a well-known candidate at the top of the ticket anyway, in order to mobilize the state’s conservative minority and help with some competitive down-ballot races.

Mr. Schiff, meanwhile, was facing the prospect of a formidable Democratic opponent in the general election, if Ms. Porter were to make it through California’s “jungle” primary, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. To the Schiff campaign, Mr. Garvey was someone who could consolidate enough Republicans behind him to bump Ms. Porter out of second place in the primary.

So Mr. Schiff and his allies — including labor unions, Native American tribes and tech executives — unleashed tens of millions of dollars worth of ads framing Mr. Garvey as the conservative choice and an acolyte of former President Donald J. Trump. The ads were a way to signal to the state’s Republican voters — nearly all of whom are conservative — that Mr. Garvey was their candidate.

The maneuver worked. In a race with nearly two dozen candidates in all, the three experienced Democrats split most of the votes on the left among them, while Mr. Garvey had the votes on the right mainly to himself. Ms. Porter ran third overall, knocking her out of the race; Ms. Lee ran a distant fourth.

“Schiff executed a perfect strategy,” said Rob Stutzman, a California Republican political strategist. “He took advantage of his large war chest to elevate himself into the runoff against an opponent who cannot compete in November with him.”

Mr. Stutzman acknowledged that the party-registration math alone makes Mr. Garvey’s chances of victory in November very small. On top of that, he said, Mr. Garvey’s reliance on bare-bones talking points has fueled questions about his readiness for office.

“But he has a wonderful opportunity to prove the doubters and naysayers wrong — to get out there and engage and adopt an issue platform with specificity,” Mr. Stutzman said.

Mr. Garvey is not the first California candidate to rely less on political experience than on celebrity. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before he rose to the governor’s office and then the White House. Before Mr. Schwarzenegger became governor in the 2003 recall election, he was an A-list movie star.

Both men put in long hours teaching themselves state policy before running for office, said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as a labor leader was familiar with state institutions. And in 2003, Mr. Schwarzenegger received a highly publicized series of tutorials on governance from policy experts at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution — a crash course that he called “Schwarzenegger University.”

Both men led the state in a less hyperpartisan era, when Republicans made up a larger share of the electorate in California than they do now. When Mr. Schwarzenegger was re-elected in 2006, it was in part because he had tacked to the middle of the political spectrum after losing a bruising battle with labor unions in his first term. And in those days, a single gaffe was far less likely to cancel a candidate’s political aspirations than it would be in the current social media age.

Mr. Garvey, sensing the risk, has reduced his policy proposals to broad strokes. On homelessness, he has said he plans to “find out what’s working and what’s not by auditing the money that has been spent on this crisis.” On the Middle East, he has said he favors Israel “yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

He has said he does not approve of abortion but would not support a national ban, because “Californians have spoken.” He does not support any further increase in the minimum wage.

His availability to the news media has been carefully controlled and rationed, with interviews limited almost exclusively to local television stations and friendly conservative outlets. He appeared at three debates, and was the only candidate who left afterward without talking to reporters.During the first televised debate in January with Mr. Schiff and the other top Senate contenders, the moderators were so frustrated by Mr. Garvey’s lack of policy talk that at one point, one of them pointedly asked why he was running, given his rudimentary positions.

Mr. Garvey responded that “policy for me is a position — I’ve taken strong positions,” and then recited a list of conservative slogans, like “let’s get back to energy,” “let’s close the border,” and “let’s fund the police.” Later, when Representatives Schiff, Lee and Porter demanded to know whether he would vote for Mr. Trump for president this year, as he had in the past two elections, Mr. Garvey squirmed and would not answer.

Reviews were scathing.

“Describing Garvey’s performance as a deer in the headlights is a disservice to actual deer in headlights,” Jack Ohman, a columnist and political cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle, wrote.

Campaign experts said this week that it was not unusual for a political novice to tread carefully on policy issues. Mr. Garvey did not have much practice, they added, because Mr. Schiff’s ad strategy had made it unnecessary for him to campaign.

“He’s been in Do-No-Harm mode so far,” said Mr. Stutzman, who was a top adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall campaign. He said that if Mr. Garvey hopes to be taken seriously, he will have to reach beyond conservative Californians without alienating them, and “demonstrate that he has a comprehension of the issues.”

“There’s a lot of specificity to things like the history of NATO and the obligations of the treaty,” he said. “To immigration. To foreign policy.”

On primary night, Mr. Garvey kept it light with supporters at a resort near his ranch house in Palm Desert, “Casa de Garvey,” and his live-streamed speech was rife with baseball analogies and nostalgia.

“Welcome to the California comeback,” he shouted to the crowd at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, borrowing one of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s old slogans. “What you’re feeling tonight is what it feels like to hit a walk-off home run.”

He invited the audience, in person and online, to join his campaign if they were concerned about gas prices, urban crime and “career politicians that worry more about their next job in Washington than your next job here in California.”

“They say in the general election that we’re going to strike out,” he said. Then he channeled another baseball great, Yogi Berra.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” he exulted.

The crowd roared.

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