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Garvey and Schiff to face off in November for Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In California, former LA Dodgers star Steve Garvey is headed for a runoff against Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff for a U.S. Senate seat. Garvey is hoping to become the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state since 1988. In the 1970s and '80s, calls like this one, courtesy of the MLB, were frequent when Garvey came to the plate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here's the pitch. Swung on, a high fly ball left field. Going back is Raines - he won't get it. That ball is out of here and a home run. Steve Garvey has given the Dodgers a 3-to-1 lead with a two-run...

FADEL: Scott Shafer from member station KQED has more.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: That home run by Steve Garvey in the 1981 National League Championship Series was just one of many highlights in a career spanning two decades. Garvey was a fan favorite, first with the Dodgers and later with the San Diego Padres. Now 75, the low profile Garvey kept for years at his home near Palm Springs was interrupted by this video announcement that he was running for the Senate.

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STEVE GARVEY: It's time to get off the bench. It's time to put the uniform on. It's time to get back in the game.

SHAFER: Garvey entered a race dominated by three Democrats in Congress - Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee. As the only Republican on the debate stage in January, Garvey portrayed himself as a mild-mannered moderate, but he also voted for Donald Trump twice. And in a state where Joe Biden beat Trump by about 30 points in 2020, that's a problem. When asked if he would support Trump against President Joe Biden in November, Garvey waffled.

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GARVEY: I will look at the two opponents. I will determine what they did. And at that time, I will make my choice.

SHAFER: That prompted this sarcastic response from Congresswoman Porter.

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KATIE PORTER: Well, California, I think what they say is true - once a Dodger, always a Dodger.

SHAFER: But Schiff, who built a national reputation as the former president's leading adversary in Congress, saw a political opportunity. In California, the top two finishers in the March primary, regardless of party, would go one on one in November. And Schiff knew that facing the Republican Garvey would be a much easier lift than a runoff against another Democrat. And so he proceeded to spend millions of dollars on television ads elevating Garvey over other Republicans on the ballot.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Steve Garvey, the leading Republican, is too conservative for California. He voted for Trump twice and supported Republicans for years, including far-right conservatives.

SHAFER: Schiff got the runoff he wanted - on election night, Garvey was far ahead of Democrats Porter and Lee.

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GARVEY: What you are all feeling tonight is what it's like to hit a walk-off home run. Keep in mind, this is the first game of a doubleheader, so keep the evening of November 5 open.

SHAFER: But Marva Diaz, a political strategist who owns a nonpartisan publication tracking elections in California, says while Garvey hit a home run in the primary - a low turnout affair that skewed older and more Republican - that was the easy part.

MARVA DIAZ: November is a whole new ballgame, right? That turnout is going to be different. There are different things on the ballot that they're going to be turning out for.

SHAFER: But not everyone agrees, including Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

LANHEE CHEN: His candidacy represents something very different, I think, for California Republicans, but also just for the competitive landscape of politics in the state.

SHAFER: Chen, who ran as a Republican candidate for statewide office two years ago but lost, thinks Garvey can appeal to voters unhappy with politics as usual.

CHEN: He also has an opportunity, I think, to draw a line on issues that is probably a little bit more centrist, a little bit closer to the median California voter.

SHAFER: For example, Garvey is promising to vote against a national ban on abortions. But Republican consultant Mike Madrid, an ardent opponent of Trump, says Garvey simply can't overcome having an R next to his name in a state where Republicans are just one-fourth of the registered voters.

MIKE MADRID: And with the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sort of transcended partisan politics, that Republican ceiling has remained remarkably consistent for the better part of 25 years.

SHAFER: On election night, Garvey de-emphasized his party affiliation, using yet another baseball metaphor.

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GARVEY: When I stepped on the field for the Dodgers and the Padres, I didn't play for Democrats or Republicans or independents. I played for all the fans. And tonight I'm running for all the people.

SHAFER: With the addition of MVP pitcher Shohei Ohtani and another top Japanese pitcher, Garvey's old team, the Dodgers, are favored to win the World Series this fall. But for Garvey himself, a season ending in victory is far less likely.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Shafer