Susan Shelley: The seen and the unseen of California’s Senate debate

If there was a Museum of Horrifying Political Mistakes, California’s top-two primary would have its own wing. Possibly its own building.

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 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The top-two primary was created by an initiative, Proposition 14, approved by voters in 2010. The idea was to eliminate political party primaries, have all the candidates on the same primary ballot, allow voters to choose any candidate from any party regardless of their own party registration, and send the top two vote-getters to the November ballot.

So that’s what we’ve got, except for presidential races, which are still party primaries.

The oddities of the top-two primary were on display in last Monday’s debate between four of the 29 candidates who are seeking the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Three of the candidates who stepped onto the debate stage at USC are Democratic members of Congress, all of them abandoning their House seats to run for a six-year term in the Senate. At the end of this election cycle, if not sooner, at least two of them will be looking for work.

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The fourth candidate on the stage was Southern California baseball legend Steve Garvey, the 10-time All-Star first baseman who famously played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

He may not be popular with Giants fans, but San Francisco would never vote for a Republican anyway.

Yes, Garvey says he’s a Republican, though he seems a little unsure about it. When debate moderator Elex Michaelson asked him, “Is there anything that you disagree with your party on in the Senate?” Garvey answered, “Just about everything.”

“Just about everything?” Michaelson asked.

“No,” Garvey said.

Artfully done. That answer deserves its own display case in the top-two primary wing of the museum.

You see, there are not nearly enough registered Republican voters in the state of California to elect a Republican to a statewide office. Therefore, a Republican candidate has to win some support from non-Republican voters. Garvey rushed to distance himself from the Republican party and then backed off quickly as if he was only joking, before Republican voters had time to be insulted. Speed is everything.

Now let’s move on to the next exhibit. In this display case, we see the three Democratic candidates for Senate sniping at each other like jealous middle-school students while being careful not to lay a glove on Garvey. He’s barely grazed by a few gentle zingers, nothing like the knockout punch to the face that professional fighters in this weight class can deliver.

What’s that about?

That’s about Steve Garvey’s endorsement.

Even though there are not enough registered Republican voters in California to elect a candidate to statewide office, there’s a pretty reliable 35% who would vote for a pickled herring if it had an R next to its name. A majority of California voters would vote for a pickled herring with a D next to its name, but what happens if they have to choose between two Democrats who finish first and second in the primary? The endorsement of the third- and fourth-place finishers might determine which fish becomes the next U.S. senator from California.

“You were a hell of a ballplayer,” front-running Democrat Adam Schiff told Garvey during the debate, the first truthful thing he has said in eight years. We may need another display case.

If not for the museum-quality, horrifying political mistake of the top-two primary, we would still have party primaries for Senate, Congress, state Senate and Assembly. Democrats would run against Democrats and Republicans would run against Republicans. One candidate would emerge from each party primary and move on to November along with any candidates nominated by other political parties.

Instead, we have a nauseating level of Machiavellian intrigue. A candidate, or allies of the candidate, can buy advertising to promote the candidacy of a very weak rival in the hope of knocking a stronger one out of the top two. Then as soon as the primary is over, the advertising stops. Voters who fell for it are left wondering why their sinking candidate isn’t running any TV ads during the general election campaign.

The next exhibit in the museum shows media polls during their transformation into self-fulfilling prophecies. Please stand back, stay behind the ropes. If you’re within the margin of error, no one knows what might happen.

With 29 candidates in the U.S. Senate race, it’s obviously necessary for editors, reporters and debate organizers to make decisions about which candidates will get coverage, air time and invitations. Then publicity drives up poll numbers.

“The following candidates have received the most media attention,” wrote Ballotpedia’s election analysts, citing CalMatters and the Los Angeles Times, “Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Steve Garvey.”  Those are the four that were invited to Monday’s debate, after a poll.

Missing the cut and not happy about it were Republican Eric Early and self-described “Independent Democrat” Christina Pascucci.

“If I were on the debate stage, I would not have stood by as Schiff lied about Russian collusion and how packing the Supreme Court will protect democracy, as Katie Porter blathered the same canards about not being controlled by big money, as Barbara Lee bragged about policies which have turned her home of Oakland into a war zone, and as the Joe Biden Republican Steve Garvey, well, Steve Garvey will let you know,” Early wrote in an op-ed published in these pages.

He’s right.

“That was so frustrating to watch,” Pascucci said in a statement, “You have the three Democratic establishment candidates who are pointing the finger at Washington — they ARE Washington.”

She’s right, too.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register


  1. Robin Itzler - Patriot Neighbors says

    California DEMOCRATS want baseball legend and political novice Steve Garvey to be one of the top two candidates to proceed to the general election. This would avoid an eight-month general campaign where two popular Democrats must spend millions of dollars while mudslinging at each other. That’s money Democrats would rather spend on down ballot races to defeat Republicans.

    That’s why Republicans should NOT vote for Steve Garvey. Keep Garvey out of the top two, so Schiff and Porter can spend the general campaign trying to out socialist one another. Any of the other three Republicans running for senate are much better qualified than Garvey. These Republicans are: James Bradley, Eric Early and Denice Gary-Pandol.

    However, if the sole goal is to get Steve Garvey into the general election so he can lose in November to Rep. Adam Schiff, vote for Garvey in the primary.

    The latest Emerson College/Inside California Politics survey has serial liar Rep. Adam Schiff at 25 percent with rookie Steve Garvey at 18 percent. Socialist Rep. Katie Porter is at 13 percent and communist Rep. Barbara Lee is at 8 percent. Does anyone think that any of Porter’s and Lee’s combined 21 percent would go to Garvey?

    Of course not!

    If you believe Steve Garvey has a chance of winning the senatorial race in November, vote for him in the primary. But let’s be realistic. We live in “communist” California, and the reality is that a Democrat is going to win the general campaign. Let’s watch Representatives Schiff and Porter attack each other for eight months while their campaigns and the Democrat party spends money, they would otherwise have spent attacking Republicans in down ballot races. This might help us keep the slim House majority.

    When casting your vote in the primary senate race, vote for James Bradley, Eric Early or Denice Gary-Pandol. All three are immensely qualified to be elected U.S. senator.

  2. Richard B. Cathcart says

    BRAVO Robin Itzier! Heck, even if Steven Garvey were elected to the governorship–courtesy of Space Aliens stuffing California’s ballot boxes sneakily–he likely be just another Arnold Schwarzenegger who would appoint only Democrats to advisorships.

  3. For those who worry about the Democrats not having enough internecine warfare, it can all be assuaged with billions of dollars in PAC money to ensure their candidates succeed. The ‘threat to democracy’ trope, along with women should be able to kill their fetuses wherever and whenever they choose, damn the consequences to society and their bodies even though they chose to have unprotected sex, will resonate with millions of clueless voters who “have their imaginary rights.”.

    Don’t worry about Steve Garvey. He’s a multi-millionaire and can fade back into relative obscurity. As for the other ‘viable’ Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat, they are DOA as far as electability.

    Until the Reps come up with a winning message for voters, they will continue in the minority. One would think California’s descent into the bowels of hell would be enough to trigger some new reality for all the Dem slaves. But it hasn’t, not when there’s evil Orange Man to demonize for every problem in their lives.

  4. Leo of Sacramento says

    I thought long and hard, before responding to this, and was about to ‘just let it go’, but…..I can’t.
    (Know when to fold them, come to mind?)
    For Richard: Ummmmm, Garvey isn’t, running for GOV. So, I don’t even know what to say about this.
    Robin? Good points….except the voting part. You suggest, NOT voting for the 2nd place R candidate, because that would allow DEM’s to save money for later races. Then, you offer 5th, 6th no place candidates as alternatives to voting instead of Garvy, citing how great they are! Ummmm, they’re not even polling above 10%. Basically, you’re advocating voting on a loser, or losers, to what…….lose? I agree, Lee and Porters numbers probably won’t cross to Garvey….then what? Then who?
    And finally Rick……smh. You said, “Until the Reps come up with a winning message for voters, they will continue in the minority. I hate to be the one to break it to you? But, YOU want a message. According to Political pundits/hacks/know it all’s, the MESSAGE doesn’t matter. All that matters, is HOW MUCH MONEY CAN YOU RAISE. Sorry Charlie, you lose.
    So, what have you got? A party in turmoil……an electorate that doesn’t look at WHOM they’re voting for. That or they just don’t care. Candidates who come out of the woodwork because they’re rich and bored or about to be termed out of office.
    Message? What’s that? Same ol rhetoric from some of them. New rhetoric from others, but ZERO on believability or actual concerns.
    What is also funny, is how Senate/Congress seats are up, yet the questions seem ot be stuck on local matters. LOCAL. I get it, senators and congressmen assist with local issues….but 100% of them argue these in congress? Please, let’s be honest and real here. No, they don’t. They argue over International politics. They argue over party politics AND they argue over National politics. You rarely if ever, here about LOCAL politics being debated in Congress. So, what happens now? Who do you believe. Is Garvey the one for the Seat? Or are the DEMO’s padding their odds, by voting for a bygone baseball player looking to dooooooooooo, what exactly? I’m not too certain ol Steve will hold his own in the Senate, given it’s current makeup. Then again, I could be wrong. We either vote or don’t, it’s that simple. Get the shitty deal, or get Garvey. The choice isn’t so great and the impact will be felt long after the balloting.
    After all this, (Senate race), then what? Presidential race. And after that?
    GOVENORS RACE. I want you to think about HOW we’re handling THAT race, which by the way, we aren’t. No Repubs running; none have declared. Waiting foooooooorrrr, what?
    Yea, THAT”S the race I”ll be into, and enduring comments from YOU folks about MY chances, facing off against 4 BIG MONEY DEMO’s in a race NO republican wants to attempt to run.
    Then again, I could be wrong.

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