With all the votes counted in California’s U.S. Senate race, the results were clear: The Republican candidate won by a nearly 9% margin.
That was 1988, and Sen. Pete Wilson had won re-election to what would be his final term before becoming California’s governor.
And that was the last time a Republican was elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate.
But with former Dodgers star Steve Garvey meeting with GOP officials and weighing a 2024 bid for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s open seat, the question remains: What would a Republican need to do to have a shot at one of California’s two Senate seats?
Democrats held sizeable advantages over Republicans in more recent U.S. Senate contests in California — if a GOP candidate even made it to the general election since California’s top two vote-getters advance in the primary, no matter the party.
In 2022, Sen. Alex Padilla was elected with a nearly 2.4 million-vote margin over Republican Mark Meuser. And in 2012, Feinstein beat Republican Elizabeth Emken by nearly 3.2 million votes. Two years prior, Republican Carly Fiorina lost to then-Sen. Barbara Boxer by about 1 million votes.
This go-round, with Feinstein not seeking re-election, three prominent Democrats have entered the race: Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff.
For Republicans, there’s attorney Eric Early, who unsuccessfully ran for attorney general in 2018 and 2022 — as well as Congress in 2020 — and a few other contenders with no statewide name ID.
And it looks like Garvey, who played 14 seasons with the Dodgers before he finished with the San Diego Padres for five seasons, may soon join the mix.
“He is interested and giving serious consideration and will make a decision in the next few weeks,” Andy Gharakhani, a veteran consultant who is advising Garvey, said in a text message Thursday.
Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the legislative and congressional delegations. Republicans — who are outnumbered about 2-to-1 by Democratic voters in the state — have struggled for years to find candidates for top offices.
“Republicans are fully engaged in this race and eager to support a commonsense conservative who can take the fight to the Democrats, push back on Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s radical policies, and advance good governing and real solutions to help Californians,” California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement.
The most recent Republican to win a top-of-the-ticket office in California was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was re-elected as governor in 2006.
“If Garvey is going to duplicate his success, his chances get much better if he runs the same type of campaign that (Schwarzenegger) did,” said Dan Schnur, a former campaign consultant who teaches about political messaging at UC Berkeley and USC.
“Part of what made (Schwarzenegger) different is that he was extremely well-known,” Schnur said. “The other thing that made him different was his ability to combine a conservative economic message with a more centrist approach on social issues.”
Garvey has been fielding calls from community and business leaders on both sides of the aisle, said Gharakhani, who are “urging him to enter the race for Senate and focus on the issues facing all Californians.” Those issues include high cost of living, taxes, crime, homelessness and “less economic opportunities for Californians,” he said.
To win the Senate seat, Republicans will need to “put out a viable alternative who people are comfortable voting for,” said Matt Shupe, a Republican strategist who has worked on multiple statewide campaigns.
Republicans, he said, are “really good about complaining about problems,” but a successful candidate for the party will need to “provide viable solutions.”
“Having an established name ID and a network of donors and people who are familiar with you in a positive way is very important for candidates,” Shupe, principal of Praetorian Public Relations, said.
Name recognition could certainly boost Garvey’s chances — but that might not be a given among all younger voters. Garvey, a National League MVP and 10-time All-Star, retired from baseball in 1988.
“That’s not to say it can’t be done,” said Schnur. “Garvey starts with a natural name recognition advantage with voters of a certain age, but he’s going to need to work very hard to educate millennial and Gen Z voters.”
Besides a potential celebrity contender, Republicans have another advantage in the Senate race this year: The presidential contest is also on the 2024 ballot.
The GOP presidential field is already competitive, and California has an early primary that could galvanize enough voters to push a Republican through to the general election ballot — something the GOP has been unable to do in several recent Senate contests since California adopted the open primary.
“Even a candidate as well-known as Garvey is still going to have an uphill fight in a deep blue state, but he’s in a very strong position to make the runoff,” said Schnur.
And that would leave Democrats Lee, Porter and Schiff fighting over just one spot in the runoff, as opposed to two.
“I think it is possible for a Republican to win in this state,” Shupe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register