There are two new major questions about California’s U.S. Senate race. And the answers will determine the shape of the contest.
One, will former baseball star Steve Garvey be a political big leaguer or a bust?
Two, will touted rookie Sen. Laphonza Butler enter the game or sit it out?
Pardon the baseball lingo, but Garvey leaned on it heavily himself in a video announcing his candidacy Tuesday. And all voters actually know about the 74-year-old is that he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres decades ago — if they know that.
But if Republican Garvey is anywhere near as good a political candidate as he was a ballplayer, and Democrat Butler steps onto the field, it may well mean this: Only one Democrat — not two as has been anticipated — will advance from the March primary to the November general election next year.
And the significance of that? Voters in November would be given a clear choice between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. It wouldn’t be just another matchup in this essentially one-party state between two think-alike Democrats.
One way or another, however, the odds are overwhelming that a Democrat will capture the Senate seat held for three decades by the late Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic centrist.
No Republican has won a statewide contest in California since 2006 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected.
Garvey might not be very competitive against a Democrat in a general election — he’s burdened with the tainted GOP brand — but he could at least make the race interesting and give Republican voters someone to rally around.
“He would give Republicans probably their best statewide candidate in over a decade,” says GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman.
“But, frankly, we need to see more of what kind of candidate he can be before making sweeping conclusions about how successful he’ll be.”
Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick doubts that Garvey’s long-past baseball stardom will help him much in the Senate race.
Republicans — Garvey’s support base — represent only 17% of registered voters in Los Angeles County, home of the Dodgers where he played first base from 1969 to 1982. The numbers are somewhat better in San Diego County, where Garvey was a Padre from1982 to 1987.
But in the San Francisco Bay Area, baseball fans “spend a lot of time chanting ‘Beat L.A.,’ ” Carrick notes. Anyway, in the Bay Area, GOP registration is worse than downright dismal.
Again, Garvey was great on the diamond. He had a remarkable career-batting average of .294, was a 10-time All-Star, won four Gold Glove Awards, played on the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series championship team and holds the National League record for consecutive games played, 1,207.
Well, that’s fascinating trivia for us baseball nuts. But so what?
He also voted for Donald Trump twice. So did roughly 6 million other Californians, but it won’t win him any support among Democrats, who outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in California.
Garvey won’t say how he feels about Trump’s current candidacy — or whether he thinks the then-president incited the Jan. 6 deadly invasion of the nation’s Capitol.
The Palm Desert Republican is trying to appease Democrats on abortion, long a GOP albatross in California. He’s against abortion personally, Garvey says, but “could never tell another person how to live their lives.”
So on the issue, he sounds like many Catholic Democrats who support abortion rights.
Garvey says his campaign will “focus on quality-of-life issues, public safety and education.”
OK, let’s hear some details. We’ve heard just canned, generic, consultant-crafted talking points so far.
What makes Garvey already relevant is California’s “top two” primary. The top two vote getters, regardless of party, will advance to the November runoff.
If Garvey can remain the only prominent GOP candidate, he could unify Republicans and reap enough votes to finish in the top two.
There are three major Democratic House members running: Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland. They’ll divide up the Democrat vote, leaving a smaller total that Garvey will need to qualify for the runoff.
Republicans could vote in higher numbers than usual because they’ll have an intriguing presidential primary with Trump running. But maybe not if Trump’s GOP rivals fold by then or choose not to compete here on Super Tuesday when there are several primaries across the country.
The Democratic primary will be a dud because there’ll be no competition for President Biden — and little incentive for Democrats to turn out.
Garvey could be further helped if Butler jumps into the race. She’d divide the Democratic vote even more, assuming one or two current candidates didn’t drop out and run for reelection to the House. All insist they wouldn’t, but dynamics would change if Butler leaped in.
Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Butler, a highly respected Black labor leader and Democratic strategist, to fill the rest of Feinstein’s term that ends after next year.
There are plenty of logical reasons for Butler to stay out of the race. She has never run for elected office. There’s relatively little time left before the primary to organize a campaign, raise millions and get around the state — while learning the ropes of a new job.
And although labor might be inclined to fund Butler’s campaign, this is a safe Democratic seat that some union-friendly candidate is bound to win anyway. Labor could conclude it would be wiser to invest in competitive races where control of Congress is at stake.
But a Senate seat can be intoxicating. Butler could see this as a God-given, exceedingly rare opportunity she shouldn’t pass up — a calling.
And there’ll likely be consultants whispering in her ear who have dollar signs in their eyes.
At any rate, in baseball jargon, Garvey and Butler are two promising prospects.