After nearly two decades of statewide Republican candidates being rejected by California’s left-leaning electorate, former Dodger All-Star Steve Garvey hopes to drag the GOP back toward political relevance.
Garvey announced Tuesday that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Dianne Feinstein, a gambit by a political newcomer banking on his baseball fame and affable demeanor to overcome the long odds Republicans face in this solidly Democratic state. At the very least, Garvey offers GOP voters a dash of celebrity excitement and his candidacy may raise the stakes for the top-shelf Democratic candidates.
Though he hasn’t stepped on a baseball field as a player for more than three decades, Garvey may possess enough star appeal to consolidate California’s GOP vote and lure enough admiring baseball fans to wind up on the November ballot. If so, only one of the three formidable Democrats currently in the running may survive past the March primary and emerge as the heavy favorite in the face-off against Garvey.
Garvey, 74, has been talking to party leaders and donors for months about a potential bid because of growing concerns about dysfunction in the nation’s capital, and he said he decided to make it official after “a Giants fan came up to me and said, ‘Garvey, I hate the Dodgers, but I’ll vote for you.’”
“In those 20 years that I played for the Dodgers and the Padres, played up in cold Candlestick Park, I never played for Democrats or Republicans or independents,” Garvey told The Times. “I played for all the fans, and I’m running for all the people.”
His announcement came days after Feinstein, a trail-blazing Democrat who represented California in the Senate for more than three decades, was laid to rest after a somber memorial in her hometown of San Francisco. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed longtime labor leader, abortion-rights advocate and Democratic strategist Laphonza Butler to fill the vacancy.
It’s unknown if Butler, 44, will run for the Senate seat in the 2024 election, which quickly became a heated contest among prominent California Democrats — Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank — after Feinstein announced earlier this year that she would not seek another term.
Garvey, who lives in Palm Desert, has flirted with politics for decades but has never mounted a campaign for public office. As he weighed a Senate bid this year, Garvey told supporters that he planned to focus his campaign on quality-of-life issues such as education, the cost of living, housing affordability, crime and homelessness — topics that could have bipartisan appeal.
“I think about families that get up each day and address all these issues,” he said.
Garvey is arguably the most well-known Republican to mount a statewide campaign since Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, who ran for governor during the unsuccessful effort to recall Newsom in 2021, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an international movie star who won office in the 2003 gubernatorial recall and was reelected in 2006.
The only other prominent GOP candidates to make it to the general election ballot in recent years are billionaire Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010 and is now President Biden’s ambassador to Kenya, and former Hewlett-Packard leader Carly Fiorina, a multimillionaire who lost a Senate bid the same year and a presidential effort six years later.
The first baseman played for the Dodgers from 1969 to 1982 and for the San Diego Padres from 1983 to 1987 — major league teams in two of the biggest media markets in the state. Garvey won a World Series title with the Dodgers in 1981, was a 10-time National League All-Star and won four Gold Glove awards.
Garvey had a squeaky clean reputation that later was marred by revelations that he fathered children with two women after a bitter divorce. It’s unclear how those past controversies will affect his appeal among voters given that they occurred decades ago. Since that time, the country elected two presidents accused of infidelity, including Donald Trump, who had a well-known history of affairs and has faced allegations of rape and other sexual misconduct.
Garvey’s greatest obstacles, however, may be his party affiliation and his political views, neither of which align with many Californians.
Garvey said he twice voted for Trump. He doesn’t have an opinion on who is responsible for the violent pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He opposes abortion but said he would respect Californians’ views on the matter and would not vote for federal legislation that restricted abortion rights. Asked about controversial decisions by some school districts that would require parents to be informed if their child showed signs of gender nonconformity, Garvey said it was a parental rights issue.
Garvey is leaning heavily into his baseball history in hopes of convincing voters who may not agree with his politics. His introductory campaign video, which runs more than one minute, features heroic video and images of him hitting home runs and rounding the bases, and memorabilia from his days on the diamond. His campaign logo features the stylized image of a baseball player wearing a Garvey jersey swinging a bat.
“There are a lot of people who know who I am. And now for the next five months, I’ll be reigniting that relationship we have,” he said.
Athletes running for office have a mixed record of success across the country. Basketball players Bill Bradley and Kevin Johnson were elected New Jersey senator and Sacramento mayor, respectively. Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota. Football player Jack Kemp represented New York in Congress. Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who is holding up hundreds of military promotions and nominations in his controversial attempt to change Pentagon abortion policy, is a former football coach at Auburn University.
But others have failed, including football player Herschel Walker in a 2022 Senate race in Georgia, and Jenner, who appeared on the “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” reality show.
Adam Mendelsohn, Schwarznegger’s former deputy chief of staff who now represents high-profile athletes such as LeBron James and Maria Sharapova, predicted that Garvey would land in the latter category.
“First of all, to win as a Republican in California, you need a level of celebrity that is far greater than a baseball player from the ‘80s,” Mendelsohn said. “It is a competitive advantage to raise some money and get some media. But it is completely delusional to think a conservative Republican can win in California regardless of what sport they played and how good they were.”
The chances of any Republican winning statewide office are slim given the state’s electoral tilt — no GOP candidate has won statewide since 2006 and Democrats currently outnumber Republican voters nearly 2 to 1, according to the secretary of state’s office.
And a poll taken more than a month before Garvey announced his bid was not promising. Garvey and Republican businessman James Bradley had the support of 7% of likely voters in the September survey by UC Berkeley and The Times. Attorney Eric Early, a perennial GOP candidate, had the support of 5%.
Schiff and Porter had the backing of 20% and 17% of likely voters, respectively, the poll found. The other prominent Democratic opponent, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, had the support of 7%.
Democrats are doubtful that Garvey will affect the outcome of the race, given California’s left-leaning electorate.
“It’s a steep hill,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Steve Garvey isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, and any Republican who would be competitive in a Senate race would have to have a powerful brand already — and that’s what Schwarzenegger had. And Schwarzenegger’s personal brand outweighed the Republican brand.”
“I am skeptical that’s the case” with Garvey, she added.
While 26 candidates have filed to run for the Senate seat as of Oct. 9, according to the Federal Election Commission, the three most prominent — and those who have raised substantive money — are Democratic members of Congress: Schiff, Porter and Lee.
Regardless of his overall prospects, Garvey’s entry into the Senate race could have a significant effect on the election because of the state’s “top-two” primary system, in which the two candidates who receive the most votes in the March primary move on to the general election regardless of party.
The September Berkeley poll found that support from Democratic voters splintered among Schiff, Porter and Lee, possibly clearing a path for a consensus Republican candidate to finish in the top two. Garvey already had the most support among Republican voters and had yet to officially enter the race.
It’s happened before. Relatively unknown Republican businessman John Cox received more votes in the 2018 California governor’s primary election than two Democratic heavyweights — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang — only to be trounced by Gavin Newsom in the general election. Cox consolidated the GOP vote because of a weak Republican field and after being endorsed by then-President Trump.
Even though his playing days are long over, Garvey’s baseball fame will probably receive national and statewide media attention, especially on Fox News and other conservative outlets that have been critical of California’s Democratic leadership on homelessness, crime and immigration. Thus far, the other Republicans in the 2024 Senate race lack that potential sway, increasing Garvey’s ability to emerge as the candidate of choice among the state’s GOP voters.
“He adds a fun element,” said veteran GOP strategist Kevin Spillane. “Garvey adds an element of cheer, if you will. At least his candidacy will add some fun for Republicans. I think most people understand he doesn’t have a chance to win. But he will give it the old college try and definitely make it a more interesting race.”
This isn’t the first time Garvey toyed with a Senate run. In 1981, he told Playboy magazine that he had been approached about running for the Senate because he could “make this society a better place to live in for all of us” and that he may one day consider a bid for the White House.