Supporters of Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s Senate bid plan to spend millions of dollars before the March 5 California primary airing television ads focused solely on Republican candidate Steve Garvey.
The ads may help Garvey, a former Dodgers All-Star first baseman, attract enough support among California Republicans to edge out Schiff’s top Democratic rival in the primary, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, setting up an easier path for the congressman from Burbank to win in the November general election.
But experts believe the efforts by Schiff and his allies to boost Garvey — including one announced Friday morning by a PAC supporting the congressman — will help the political newcomer. The media barrage, combined with Garvey’s celebrity from his days playing for the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, may be enough to ensure that he earns one of the top two spots in the primary.
Pundits say Garvey simply needs to stay the course, despite having little money for his campaign and few ways beyond media appearances to get his message out.
“No other Republican is talking to voters; no other Republican has any name ID here or any element of fame,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who advised former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others. So “if Republican voters consolidate around him,” Garvey could win enough votes to advance to the general election.
“I think there’s some scenario, if Schiff does the job too well, Garvey could be the top vote-getter,” Stutzman said.
Stutzman believes Schiff’s ads could help boost Garvey’s support to 20% of the primary vote.
Polling from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last month, before the ads aired, found that Schiff was backed by 21% of likely voters, compared with 17% for Porter and 13% for Garvey.
Under California’s primary system, the two most popular candidates in the March election move on to the general, regardless of party affiliation. Democrats have a history of trying to elevate a Republican into one of the top two spots to create an easy contest, given the overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage in the state.
On Friday, a pro-Schiff independent expenditure committee funded by wealthy individuals, labor unions and Native American tribes, which can accept unlimited donations but cannot coordinate with the candidate’s campaign, launched a 30-second ad that criticizes Garvey as “too conservative for California.” The ad notes that he voted for Trump twice, could tilt the balance of the Senate and would “advance Trump’s MAGA agenda.”
“This is about holding Steve Garvey accountable for voting twice for Trump and his MAGA agenda,” said Kyle Layman, executive director of the Standing Strong PAC, which is funding the ad on television statewide. “As we head into the general election, he can’t be allowed to reinvent himself and hide his conservative MAGA values. California voters need to know who Garvey really is.”
This is on top of a similar television ad by the Schiff campaign, which is augmenting the messages with mailers and targeting digital ads to Republican voters in deeply conservative parts of the state.
GOP Assemblyman Joe Patterson, who lives in the pro-Trump city of Rocklin in Placer County, said he has received mailers at his home — and Facebook ads on his feed — from Schiff’s campaign that highlight “the leading Republican candidate — Steve Garvey.” The materials note Garvey’s support for Trump and say the candidate “is too conservative for California.”
Patterson, noting that he’s undecided in the race, said the tactic was smart.
“This might be the first piece of Democratic mail I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “Honestly, I can’t stand Adam Schiff. But I kind of have respect for this. That’s a dog move.”
The Garvey campaign, which has no presence on the airwaves and reported having $300,000 as of the end of 2023, criticized the Democrat’s efforts to boost his candidacy.
“Steve Garvey’s campaign has always been and will continue to be about bringing all Californians together for commonsense, compassionate solutions to today’s real problems, not trite political hatchet jobs,” said spokesman Matt Shupe. “Californians are tired of this divisive rhetoric that aims to separate us into simple buckets against ourselves rather than unite us in common cause to better all of our lives. This is why Steve Garvey continues to rise in the polls.”
The Schiff and Porter campaigns both declined to comment.
Porter has called Schiff’s move to boost Garvey cynical and misleading. Her latest television spot shows a snippet of Schiff’s Garvey ad, with a narrator saying: “This ad? Typical politicians …. ”
This week, Porter rolled out a policy initiative on the issue that voters consistently rate as the most urgent: housing and homelessness. The 10-point plan includes creating a select committee on housing and looking for ways to help Californians on fixed incomes, such as seniors and college students, afford to rent homes.
“I think that instead of playing cynical political games and trying to take that choice away, we should be focusing on communicating directly with voters about what we’re going to get done for California,” Porter told Fox 11 recently.
The problem is that even before the independent committee announced its plans Friday, Schiff was spending three times as much money as Porter was on television ads, according to Democratic media buyer Sheri Sadler, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates or independent expenditure committees in the race.
Porter ended 2023 with $13.2 million in her Senate campaign account. Schiff had $34.9 million.
Adam Probolsky, an Orange County-based pollster who has worked for Democrats and Republicans, said Porter’s financial reserves give her an opportunity to beat out Garvey and make the top two in the primary. He said Porter needs to continue to pound her message on the airwaves and highlight that she’s the younger candidate, with more innovative ideas.
“Katie Porter is everywhere, attacking the system, and it needs to stay that way,” he said, noting that California is one of the nation’s most expensive media markets. “It’s really about money. I wish there was something else, but it’s a damn big state.”