With just days to go until California’s primary election for U.S. Senator, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll shows something many California voters haven’t ever seen – a Republican leading a statewide race.

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Republican candidate Steve Garvey, a former All-Star player for both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, is currently in 1st place in a crowded field to replace Dianne Feinstein. Garvey was far behind Democrat Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter and tied with Barbara Lee in August, but his numbers have skyrocketed as the state’s Republicans have coalesced behind him and as he gained more No Party Preference (NPP) voter support than the three Democrats. 

There is one other major factor, though, in Garvey’s rise: millions of dollars in television advertising courtesy of Adam Schiff.

Schiff has spent upward of $25 million on television advertising, most of which has framed the contest as a two-candidate race between him and Garvey. An outside group of Schiff allies has spent roughly an additional $10 million on a similar effort.

“Two leading candidates for Senate. Two very different visions for California,” a narrator intones, noting later that Garvey “is too conservative for California” and voted for Donald Trump twice.

            

 

What does this mean for November? Could a Republican really win the U.S. Senate seat? The pollsters say:

The latest poll asked voters who they would support in a November general election run-off for U.S. Senate under three possible candidate pairings. The results indicate that both Democrats Schiff and Porter would hold early double-digit leads over Republican Garvey if either were to make it to the November run-off election along with Garvey. In a Schiff-Garvey run-off election, Schiff leads by fifteen points (53% to 38%), while Porter leads by fourteen points (52% to 38%) when facing Garvey in the run-off election. 

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Of course, this poll is a snapshot in time and in this race there have been wild swings in polls over its duration. However, there’s no way in he-double-hockey-sticks that Schiff would run these exact ads in the general, though he would definitely run ads painting Garvey as a MAGA extremist (his own bump in the polls during the same time frame is evidence that the general tactic works). Garvey would need to get out and connect with voters and would absolutely need to practice for one-on-one debates if he even does them. If I were advising him, I’d have him either go hard against Schiff (which should be easy given the buckets of ammo available) in a debate or not debate at all.

The numbers could represent a bigger shift in California politics, though. Cole Patterson, the California Republican Party’s data director, provided this update Saturday on the growth of registered Republicans in the state since October 3, 2023:

The California Secretary of State published their 15 day pre-election registration report ahead of the primary. The new numbers show that between January 5 and February 20, 2024:

  • Republicans added 55,621 new voters
  • Democrats lost 38,106 voters
  • No Party Preference lost 22,566 voters

To break that down further, Republicans made gains in every single congressional and legislative district, while gaining in all 58 California counties.

This is the second consecutive report that shows Republicans adding voters while Democrats and NPP lose voters. In total, since October 3, Republicans have gained 102,210 new voters while Democrats lost 68,324. 

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In such a large state the gain of 102,210 new voters since October 3 isn’t going to make a huge and immediate difference, but having the NPP and Democrat registration categories lose voters while Republicans gain could show that more Californians are willing to be known as Republicans rather than simply staying with their current affiliation and voting Republican. (With CA’s top-two primary, a Democrat or NPP voter could vote for any Republican other than those in the presidential race.) That would likely signal that Newsom’s schtick is wearing very thin and voters are finally blaming him and Democrats for the state’s decline.

However, it could also be that a certain number of Democrats or NPP voters want to vote in the Republican presidential primary and the only way to do that was to register as a Republican. Anecdotally I know of some NPP voters who switched to Republican simply so they can vote for Donald Trump. There are likely others who switched so they could vote for Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie. We’ll definitely be watching the registration numbers after the primary and leading up to the general election to see if this trend holds.

In the meantime, though, we’ll be watching California’s primary election results on March 5… and March 6, and March 7, and all the way until they’re certified, to see if a Republican can pull off something no other Republican has in a statewide primary election for decades – a first-place finish.

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