The Steve Garvey Effect

Schiff’s Strategy Could Ultimately Lead to More GOP Losses

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s strategy to prop up Steve Garvey encouraged more conservative voters to cast ballots in March, helping Republicans advance to the run-off in numerous down-ballot races but may end up boosting Democrats in other key races.


For nearly two decades, California has not been a hospitable environment for statewide Republicans, and that’s why nobody has spent millions of dollars on TV ads in any Republican campaign in more than a dozen years.
Well, not until this year’s primary election. And it took a Democratic campaign and allied independent expenditures to do it.
More than $10 million was spent on ads attacking U.S. Senate candidate Steve Garvey. They were, however, thinly veiled support ads targeting Republican voters. The goal was to consolidate Republican votes for Garvey and get him into the run-off in November, thus helping U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff avoid a costly and competitive race against a fellow Democrat, Rep. Katie Porter.
And it worked — maybe too well. Garvey secured the top spot in the U.S. Senate primary partial term, and nearly tied with Schiff in the full term.
From the day Garvey announced his candidacy, understanding this race didn’t require complex sabermetrics. The math was simple, and it starts with 40%: That is the electoral cap for Republicans in California — no statewide candidate with an ‘R’ next to their name has surpassed that figure since 2014.
It is also close to their floor, with all statewide Republican candidates receiving around 34-39% since 2016.
Early polling may have had him much lower, but the math always catches up.
While Garvey’s showing in this election won’t mean much come November, it did have an impact on turnout among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents statewide, which potentially impacted other races.
In a post-election survey conducted for Capitol Weekly, primary voters in California were asked which race on the ballot most compelled them to vote. The Senate race was the top reason for Republican Garvey voters who were not voting for former President Donald Trump, and it was even more important for conservative-leaning independents, with nearly 60%.
If the Garvey effort — not just the normal dynamics of a low-turnout election — increased the concentration of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, it could have hurt Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Proposition 1 and some Democrats in the short-term. But that also may rebound to the benefit of Democrats come November.
Several of the most tightly fought legislative and congressional contests were expected to result in two Democrats emerging from large fields with lots of spending. Then on Election Night, many of these candidates found a Republican, often a complete unknown, in the coveted spot for the General Election.
We saw this in the shadow of Schiff’s congressional district. In the fight for his replacement, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and state Sen. Anthony Portantino were in a tight battle with other high-profile Democrats, including former L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and actor Ben Savage.
They collectively spent millions fighting for a spot in the General Election, but the second spot was won by Alex Balekian, a relatively unknown Republican who spent $10,000 on a launch video but little else.
Friedman, who came in first in the Schiff district, saw a similar thing in her legislative district, with four Democrats spending money but a Republican who spent none slipping into the top two.
The same thing happened with Portantino’s Senate seat, with Yvonne Yiu, who ran for state controller in 2022, spending $3 million and getting boxed out of the second spot by a Republican who spent less than 3% of that.
In over a dozen races, largely unknown Republicans advanced over candidates with million-dollar campaigns or independent expenditure backing.
Newsom’s Prop. 1 ballot measure was also affected. While that ultimately passed by less than a percentage point, the result may have been closer than expected because a larger number of Republicans and conservative-learning independents came out to vote.
While individual Democrats around the state have had their hopes of making it to November dashed, the fact is that Schiff’s play may ultimately be a big win for Democrats. The Golden State is home to seven very competitive congressional districts. A close U.S. Senate battle, with the potential to waste $100 million, would not have helped the cause.
Additionally, with more Republicans in run-offs for safe legislative and congressional districts, Democrats in those areas aren’t going to have to spend money in expensive intraparty battles and can instead raise money for others.
Democrats can join me in blaming Schiff for the next seven months of Garvey’s grueling baseball analogies, but he can’t be blamed for hurting Democrats statewide. Turnout will be sky high in November, and the same math that got Garvey into the General will ensure he can’t win it.
It might not have been the goal, but this political play by Schiff and his allies has taken a lot of costly and expensive distractions off the table and enhanced Democrats’ prospects for November.

Paul Mitchell is the vice president of Political Data, a voter data firm based in California, and owner of Redistricting Partners, a redistricting consulting firm. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Published with permission of CalMatters.