The frontrunner is using a GOP longshot to take out Democrats 

The most recent U.S. Senate race debate made clear just how important Republican candidate Steve Garvey is to Democratic frontrunner Adam Schiff’s strategy for succeeding the late Dianne Feinstein.

By JIM NEWTON, CalMatters

If Steve Garvey didn’t exist, Adam Schiff would have to invent him and, indeed, the congressman is busy doing just that. As last week’s debate between the candidates for California’s open U.S. Senate seat made clear, Garvey is a precious asset for Schiff.

Not an easy asset, mind you. It’s painfully difficult to take Garvey seriously as a candidate for anything. He has no path to victory, no coherent set of ideas, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense. He gets lost in his own answers and projects a novel mixture of arrogance and nearly complete ignorance of any issue that calls for reasoning.

And yet, this political klutz is paving the way for Schiff to win the seat vacated by legendary Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death last year. To do that, Schiff is running not just his own campaign but Garvey’s too.

The dynamics are a little convoluted, but here are the basics: Garvey, the onetime first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, has enough name recognition for Republicans to gravitate to him, but not enough smarts to pose any threat to Schiff.

By contrast, Rep. Katie Porter could, at least in theory, consolidate progressives and give Schiff a run for his money in the fall if she were to finish in the top two. Rep. Barbara Lee, another liberal Democrat in the running, trails Porter, and splitting their political base hurts their prospects. 

But if Porter could break free and finish second, she could make life difficult for Schiff.

Rather than risk that, Schiff is executing a nifty political shuffle. He’s taken out ads that frame the campaign as a contest between his Democratic credentials and the record, such as it is, of Garvey, whom the ads describe as the race’s “leading Republican.” That’s made liberals mad since it ignores them but it’s working: 

Buoyed by Schiff’s advertising and little else, Garvey has been rising in the polls and now is solidly in contention for second place. 

Schiff brought that strategy to the stage at last week’s debate. 

Over and over, he tactically turned his fire on Garvey. He lumped Garvey with former President Trump over the border wall; he hammered Garvey over refusing to say whether he was supporting Trump in the current election after voting for him twice; he noted that he was prosecuting criminals back when Garvey was “playing baseball.”

Yes, those are criticisms, but they serve also to raise Garvey’s profile. Since Garvey has little money or ability of his own, Schiff’s attacks are the best thing going for him.

And yet, while Schiff’s help may get Garvey into the runoff, it’s setting him up for a fall in November, when Republicans won’t have the numbers. Schiff is raising him up, using the former ballplayer to fend off Porter and happily dispatch him down the road.

Porter knows it. She’s taken out ads to blunt Schiff’s, but they haven’t demonstrated much efficacy. 

And she tried to make the point during the debate, launching into a brief explanation of Schiff’s strategy during a largely ludicrous exchange over age limits and term limits for members of Congress and the Supreme Court two ideas that not only are doomed to failure but that the candidates, especially Porter and Garvey, could not seem to keep straight. 

Frustrated in that exchange and mischaracterizing Schiff’s position on limits for justices, Porter interjected a comment about Schiff trying to shape the field for this campaign “with these ads that he’s running right now.” 

But the remark was tucked into a 15-second rebuttal and died there.

Porter sees what’s happening and is trying to fight her way through it. The hapless Garvey simply drifts along, carried by Schiff’s draft and otherwise unable to mount any kind argument for himself. He seems both to support limits on assault weapons and oppose them; he opposes abortion but pledges to, well, support it. 

It’s hard to listen without wincing. 

At one point last Monday, Garvey accused Schiff of participating in the “deconstruction of the Constitution” for supporting efforts to enlarge the Supreme Court and end the Senate filibuster. 

Those ideas are shaky ones and worthy of rebuttal, but here’s a note to Garvey: Neither the filibuster nor the size of the court is even mentioned in the Constitution.

Garvey is a political loser. He’d be gone by now were it not for the man he’s trying to beat. 

But as the debate made clear, Schiff will toy with him a while longer, at least until March 5.

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. He can be contacted at