Such is the curious existence of Republicans in California these days that a US Senate hopeful can perform underwhelmingly on a public debate stage yet perhaps improve his chances of political advancement.
Such might be the case with former baseball great Steve Garvey, the most prominent of 10 Republicans on California’s March primary ballot and, by most accounts, not much of a power-hitter in last week’s televised debate showcasing Garvey and three Democratic members of Congress, all of whom aspire for the seat once held by the late Dianne Feinstein.
Garvey’s problem(s): (1) he’s not the same electric presence as was Arnold Schwarzenegger when the latter ran for governor back in the 2003 recall election; (2) given a chance to offer himself to California voters as a thoughtful problem solver, Garvey instead shied away from concrete policies—the opposite approach of Meg Whitman, the former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO who ran for governor in 2010 by complementing her corporate executive resume with proposals for improving the Golden State’s government.
So why posit that Garvey may succeed (i.e., survive the primary) by coming up short in front of the television cameras (not being a strong debater)? George Skelton, the venerable Los Angeles Times political columnist, offers this rationale: with three Democratic candidates throwing high and inside at Garvey regarding his past (and maybe future) support of Donald Trump, Garvey’s standing among Republican primary voters may consolidate. If so, that improves Garvey’s chances of winning or placing in the March 5 primary, which means advancing to the November election.
In case you missed the debate, here’s how Rep. Katie Porter launched the attack:
“Mr. Garvey, you won’t tell the public whether you’re going to support [Trump] again. You voted for him twice. You saw what he did on January 6. You have to see what a threat he is to the country. I can understand you don’t want to alienate MAGA-world by saying you’re against him, but you also won’t stand up to him.”
Garvey’s reply: “You’re trying to paint me into the corner, trying to call me MAGA. I make my own decisions. I voted for Donald Trump because he was the best person.”
As for how he’ll vote in 2024, Garvey offered: “When the time comes, I will look at the two opponents; I will determine what they did and at that time I will make my choice.”
Tempting though it may be to add the awkwardness of Garvey’s words to the dossier of Republicans nationwide who for eight years now have been unsure of what exactly to say about Trump vis à vis their own political fortunes, the dynamics in California actually predate Trump’s hold over the GOP.
How far back? Try 1988.
It’s a year that Steve Garvey will remember. as it began with the end of his baseball career (Garvey holding a press conference two weeks into the new year and telling reporters—somewhat politically—“In 20 years, dreams have come true. It’s been an opportunity to take successes on the field and work off the field to help people positively. We as athletes truly have the opportunity to help others. I thank God for the strength to be in professional athletics”).
That November, California ended up in the Republican column of the presidential election—just as it had gone “red” in eight of the previous nine national contests dating back to 1952. But that success came with an ominous sign of things to come: George H. W. Bush carried California by 3.5% while winning the national popular vote by more than double that margin (7.8%)—the rare case at that time of a GOP nominee “underperforming” in the Golden State. By contrast, Gerald Ford (like the elder George Bush, not enjoying the same native-son status as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan) lost the national popular vote in 1976 by 2.1%, yet still managed to carry the Golden State by 1.7% (a difference of roughly 140,000 votes).
What happened after Republicans held serve in California in 1988?
Bedeviled by changing times come 1992 (the end of the Reagan era; an economic recession that soured voters) and an altered political map (H. Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy), the “Bush 41” brain trust chose to abandon California—and with that act of political generosity necessity, what ensued was the first of now eight consecutive Democratic presidential wins in the Golden State.
From there, a field of GOP presidential hopefuls looked to reclaim California in the 1996 presidential election, only to find the Republican Party had the same good luck as the ill-fated Donner Party. Texas senator Phil Gramm came to the Golden State in 1995 and doled out slabs of Reaganesque red meat (fiscal conservatism, welfare reform, refusing to send US forces into combat under the command of the United Nations). Not that we’ll ever know if Gramm’s approach would have paid off; he departed the race before the following year’s presidential primary.
As for Dole (the man, not the verb): the Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee came to the Golden State and employed a strategy that had worked in 1994 for governor Pete Wilson’s reelection race: talking tough on crime. But Bob Dole’s strategy didn’t pan out (unlike 1994, it wasn’t a Republican landslide year with Democrats on the political defensive). Sadly, Dole’s most memorable moment in 1996 while stumping across California: falling off a podium in the town of Chico (the candidate was lucky to walk away from his misfortune with only a bruised ankle and a minor hemorrhage in the white of his left eye).
Let’s fast-forward now through a series of mostly forgettable presidential elections in California—the younger George Bush failing to surpass 44.5% the two times he ran in the Golden State; the campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney never entertaining serious thoughts of investing treasure or the candidate’s time in America’s most populous state.
Instead, let’s move to the present and Donald Trump’s dominance of the local Republican existence.
How much influence way does Donald Trump hold over the state’s Republican apparatchiki, one might ask? Look no further than an action taken last summer by state party insiders: changing delegate allotment rules in a way that likely will benefit Trump mightily a month from now. Unlike previous Republican presidential primaries, in which delegates were awarded based upon candidates’ performances in individual congressional districts, the winning candidate in next month’s primary stands to earn all of California’s 169 delegates (more than two and a half times the number of delegates at stake in Iowa and New Hampshire combined, and about one-seventh of the sum needed to cinch the nomination) if he or she surpasses 50% of the statewide vote—perhaps not coincidentally, a threshold Trump cleared in Iowa (51%) and New Hampshire (54.4%).
How does this pertain to Steve Garvey?
First, there’s the growing realization that absent a dramatic turn of events in the Republican presidential primary race—Nikki Haley reversing her fortunes in her native South Carolina; an act of God striking down Trump—the March 5 primary will be more of a political coronation for the former president than an earnest contest.
But after March? For Garvey, assuming he survives the primary, these are the grim numbers he stands to face if we go by Trump’s experience: 31.6% while running against Hillary Clinton in 2016; 34.3% while running against Joe Biden in 2020. And in both elections Trump finished a dozen or more points below his national performance in terms of the popular vote.
Small wonder then that Garvey, when faced with the question of whether he’ll vote for Trump a third time, balked at the chance, stepped out of the batter’s box, and called for time—choose your favorite baseball metaphor—to clarify where he stood on a candidate who’s central to the Republican primary vote in March but most likely box-office poison in the November election. As such, it’s a world of difference between today’s California and the California of 1988, when Pete Wilson, at the time seeking a second US Senate term, didn’t have to ponder whether to publicly embrace the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
One other aspect of California politics—and here we’ll employ a football metaphor: the Golden State doesn’t lack for armchair quarterbacks willing to second-guess strategy and offer unsolicited advice (this author pleading guilty to such behavior).
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any tweaks that Garvey should consider before the next time he and his Democratic rivals return to the debate stage. For example, there’s this Orange County Register column suggesting that Garvey focus on the onerous tax burden for middle-class Californians (“Taxes are the pitch down the middle of the strike zone for Republicans. It’s their main brand,” the column advises) and a 1980s-style embrace of economic expansion (“In every answer and ad, [Garvey] should offer a Reaganesque vision for a prosperous future of growth and opportunity. He would hit a policy home run as everyone—Republicans, Democrats and independents—cheered).
I’ll add my two cents: Garvey should raise a topic that divides Democrats but potentially galvanizes Republicans. And that would be a difference of opinion between University of California administrators and the Biden administration over the legality of hiring undocumented students for campus jobs (roughly 4,000 students in question).
Last week, facing the threat of a federal lawsuit, UC regents voted to rescind the policy that would have permitted such hires. However, it was a one-year hold and not an outright ban. Garvey should ask his Democratic foes whether the university or the Biden administration is in the right. And if he’s clever about it, he can press further on the topic of border security and what constitutes sensible immigration reform (I’d also suggest he take a not-so-subtle swipe at California senator Alex Padilla who, despite representing a prominent border state and holding the distinction of being the first Latino elected to the US Senate from California, doesn’t seem to be much of a presence in the current immigration imbroglio in the nation’s capital).
California’s next US Senate debate happens to fall on February 12—yes, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and a reminder that modern televised debates hold none of the forensic gravitas that elevated Lincoln to national prominence in the lead-up to America’s Civil War.
Can Steve Garvey bounce back from his first, wobbly debate performance? Stay tuned.
In baseball and politics, a smart hitter learns how to adjust to the count.