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Steve Garvey: Not the next Jim Bunning

California Senate candidate had a good baseball career, but he's no Hall-of-Famer

Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey tosses a baseball to supporters at his election night watch party on March 5 in Palm Desert, Calif.
Republican Senate candidate Steve Garvey tosses a baseball to supporters at his election night watch party on March 5 in Palm Desert, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Steve Garvey almost had a Hall of Fame career. It was a very good career, but not a great one.

He played a total of 19 years in the major leagues, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers but also with the San Diego Padres.

When he retired in 1987, he had a career batting average of .294, had hit 272 home runs, and had been an all-star 10 times. But he never came close to getting the support he needed to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

What does that have to do with anything? Garvey, who turned 75 in December, is the Republican nominee for the United States Senate from California.

You probably think that devoting an entire column to Garvey is little more than an excuse to write about baseball. And of course, you are right. I’d rather talk baseball than politics these days.

Anyway, unlike former Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning who served two terms in the Senate from Kentucky, Garvey has little or no chance of being elected to the Senate in November.

Bunning was a conservative Republican who had plenty of political experience. He served in the Kentucky Senate and ran unsuccessfully for governor. He subsequently served in the U.S. House (from a very Republican district) before his two terms in the U.S. Senate.  

But Garvey is a Republican in a Democratic state, and the main reason he will be on the ballot in the fall is because Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff attacked Garvey as too conservative, thereby boosting Garvey’s stock among Republicans.

That helped Garvey finish ahead of two other Democratic members of Congress, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, in a state where the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, face off in the November general election.

If Schiff had not increased Garvey’s visibility, which helped mobilize California Republicans to rally behind Garvey, Porter (or Lee) might have finished second, forcing Schiff into a November race against a fellow Democrat. That would have added a dose of uncertainty into the November election.

Schiff ruffled some feathers (particularly among Porter supporters) by boosting Garvey’s prospects. But that won’t matter much given Democrats’ partisan advantage in California.

Of course, even though Garvey has no chance – none, zero, zilch, nada – of winning in November, that hasn’t stopped Republican fundraisers and Garvey’s campaign from trying to raise money and turn the Senate race into a serious contest.

In late March, I received an email from the NRSC, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans.

“We won’t mince words – Adam Schiff and Steve Garvey are in a dead-heat tie for the seat,” began the email.

The evidence behind this dubious assertion is that Garvey and Schiff each drew 32 percent of the vote in the Golden State’s jungle primary, when all of the candidates were listed together.

Of course, Porter and Lee combined to draw another 25 percent of the vote, which, when combined with Schiff’s, reflected the Democratic Party’s advantage in Golden State politics.

“This is the first time in over 30 years that Republicans have a shot at picking up a seat in that bastion of a state. We have a serious opportunity to Strike Out Schiff,” continued the email, which was simply wrong about Garvey’s prospects. The email ultimately asked me to rush $25 to the NRSC.

The next email I received, dated early April, was from the Garvey campaign. It told me how terrible things are in the country and said that Democrats actually “welcome the misery so they can keep folks down and dependent.”

Then came “the ask” for a $35 donation to the campaign.

A few days later I received another email from the Garvey campaign. It blamed Schiff and Biden for “spending our country into an oblivion of debt and inflation,” for “siding with violent criminals over our brave police,” and for “accepting failed public schools.”

And as usual, Garvey asked for a contribution – though this time “of any amount.”

Garvey isn’t the only professional athlete who got the political bug.

Football great Steve Largent, who was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, served in Congress from Oklahoma from 1994 to 2002, while pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell served in the House from North Carolina in the early 1970s. In 1976, New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House from South Carolina. All were Republicans.

Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn football coach, is currently in the U.S. Senate, while football star Herschel Walker lost a runoff in a 2022 Georgia Senate race. Former Pittsburgh Steeler great wide receiver Lynn Swann lost his race for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006. All are Republicans.

Standing out from the crowd is former New York Knicks basketball great Bill Bradley, a Democrat. Serious and thoughtful, the Princeton graduate represented New Jersey in the Senate, winning first in 1978 and reelected in 1984 and 1990.

Bradley, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2000, is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Garvey will talk about pulling an upset, and he’ll use plenty of baseball lingo. He doesn’t have much else. Because, at the end of the day, he’s no Jim Bunning or Bill Bradley.

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