Steve Garvey Has Barely Campaigned for Senate in California. He’s Surging Anyway

Steve Garvey, running for Senate in California, speaking during a debate for candidates in the senate race on Jan. 22, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) —Steve Garvey’s quixotic campaign for the U.S. Senate seat once held by the late Dianne Feinstein appears likely to pay off in Tuesday’s California primary. Despite his barely there strategy — Garvey held few public events and did not pay for a single television ad — polls show the Republican is on the cusp of winning one of the top two spots in the nonpartisan primary and advancing to the general election.

Political experts say Garvey was buoyed by two forces: fame from his nearly two decades playing professional sports, including winning a championship in 1981, in California, and a multimillion-dollar ad blitz by his opponent, Democratic front-runner Rep. Adam B. Schiff and his allies, that boosted Garvey’s standing among GOP voters.

Schiff, D-Burbank, benefits if Garvey advances to the November election because of California’s overwhelming Democratic tilt. Garvey faces little chance of winning in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican statewide since 2006. Still, his name on the November ballot could help the GOP if it boosts Republicans in tight congressional races that will be decisive in determining control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

News that Garvey had been meeting with GOP donors and leaders around the state as he pondered a potential Senate bid leaked out last spring. He took months to officially announce that he was running for the seat, prompting head-scratching among political insiders because of the amount of money that needs to be raised to run a statewide campaign in California, home to some of the most expensive media markets in the nation.

Once Garvey entered the race, he did not mount a traditional campaign. He hasn’t held any big rallies or public meet-and-greets with voters around the state. He spent no money on TV ads, never rented a campaign bus and declined to do endorsement interviews with California’s major newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.

In the final weekend before election day, the leading Democrats running for the Senate seat barnstormed the state, with Schiff holding seven public events, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland attending four and Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine participating in two. As his Democratic opponents seized the last opportunity to woo voters, Garvey was at home in Palm Desert, visible to the public only through TV ads paid for by Schiff and his supporters.

Garvey’s campaign dismissed the notion that he has not been publicly engaged and that Schiff’s messaging helped the Republican’s candidacy.

He has been reaching out to voters through talk radio and local and conservative media. He was mentioned in those forums 4,920 times in the last month, according to a report by Cision, a media tracking firm. On Friday, Garvey appeared on Fox News, Newsmax, NewsNation and talk radio in Fresno.

Earlier this year, Garvey visited the U.S.-Mexico border, participated in three televised debates and held brief campaign events focused on homelessness in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento. As he stood outside a San Diego homeless shelter in January, Garvey was asked about his lack of policy prescriptions for the unhoused, an issue that is front of mind for Californians. “Once we get through the primary, I’ll start a deeper dive into the (issues),” he said. “I haven’t been at this very long, so you got to give me a little bit of leeway here.”

Garvey’s strategy to date is one that may be seen in a legislative contest, not one that’s typical for a statewide candidate trying to reach nearly 22 million voters.

A key question is whether Garvey’s minimal public engagement with voters and the mainstream California press will change if he makes the general election.

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