LOS ANGELES -- You'd have to go back a generation — to 1988 — to find the last time a Republican candidate won a U.S. Senate race in heavily Democratic California. This time, the party might get an MVP on the ballot.
Baseball legend Steve Garvey, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, is meeting with voters and senior GOP officials as he weighs a potential 2024 Senate bid in a race that already has several prominent Democratic contenders. He appeared at a recent fundraiser for Republican Rep. Michelle Steel in Orange County, where he signed baseballs and talked about his potential candidacy.
“He is seriously considering entering the race,” said veteran consultant Andy Gharakhani, who is advising Garvey.
Garvey has flirted with the possibility of entering politics before, including after his retirement from baseball, when he teased a possible U.S. Senate run but never became a candidate.
“I have been approached to run for office and am exploring that. No announcement is imminent," Garvey said in a statement released by a Dodgers team spokesperson.
The 74-year-old Garvey had an 18-year major league career, and he was National League MVP in 1974. He retired from baseball in 1987.
The growing field of candidates already includes Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee. The seat is held by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has announced she is not seeking another term.
Still, even with his celebrity sparkle, Garvey would enter the race as an underdog. 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 credible candidates for statewide offices.
In the state’s last two U.S. Senate races, GOP candidates performed so poorly in the primary elections that only two Democrats advanced to the November ballot. Garvey’s candidacy could give the GOP a chance to make the November election, potentially lifting party turnout and also helping down-ballot GOP candidates.
The power of celebrity can produce surprises at the ballot box, noted veteran Democratic consultant Roger Salazar, referring to the political rise of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President Donald Trump, among others.
While a Democrat would be favored given the state's political tilt, a fractured Democratic primary vote could provide an opening for Garvey to slip into the November match-up.
“I've learned to never say never when it comes to celebrities in politics,” Salazar added.
Political scientist Thad Kousser, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, said part of Garvey's challenge will be changing the perception of the GOP brand in liberal-tilting California, where Trump lost in the 2020 election in a landslide. He noted that Schwarzenegger, the state's last Republican governor, was a moderate who supported abortion rights and environmental protection.
Although unlikely to win in a state that favors Democrats, Garvey would scramble the dynamics of the race with a large and growing field.
If he becomes a candidate "he's not going to win the game but he is going to change the game," Kousser added.
In recent election cycles, California Republicans have targeted criticism at the state's Democratic-dominated government, faulting the rival party for notoriously high taxes, a homeless crisis, rising urban crime rates housing prices that are out of reach for many working-class families.
“I think Steve Garvey would be one of the most interesting and dynamic candidates for a statewide office Republicans have had in decades,” said Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel, who is married to the congresswoman.
“He's good on the stump ... and he reminds me of a Reagan-esque approach,” Steel added, referring to former Republican President Ronald Reagan, another Californian.
Republican attorney Eric Early — an unsuccessful candidate for state attorney general in 2022 and 2018 and for Congress in 2020 — entered the Senate contest in April. In a statement, he said Garvey “has more personal baggage than Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner,” an apparent reference to 1980s sex scandals that sullied Garvey's reputation as “Mr. Clean,” a moniker that referred to his buttoned-down image from his Dodger days.
AP Writer Beth Harris contributed.