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Why a Republican could place first or second in the California Senate primary

Former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey takes the field for an “Old Timers” game before the Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 at Dodger Stadium.

Despite all the Democratic star power in the frantic California Senate race, it’s very possible a Republican could wind up as one of the top two in next year’s primary

Here’s why:

Republicans could be more motivated to turn out. Supporters of former President Donald Trump are enthusiastic about his candidacy. He had 53% backing from Republican primary voters in the October 3-19 Public Policy Institute of California poll, a level of support that’s been steady for months. No other Republican has come close.

The PPIC poll surveyed 1,395 likely voters for the entire poll. Margin of error is plus-or-minus 4%.

“Republicans have a lot of reasons to vote. They could have a competitive presidential primary. That Tuesday could be when Trump will win or lose the presidential race. For Democrats it’s a nothingburger,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., a California-based analytics firm.

Mitchell suggested that “if Republicans are at a much higher turnout – maybe upwards of 55% like they were in 2020 – and Democrats are down at some abysmal 35% turnout or something, then it makes it much more likely that in a three-way Democratic fight, that one decent Republican should make the top two runoff (for Senate).”

Republicans have claimed one of the top two positions in the past, usually when Democrats were united behind a single candidate. They advanced to the November 2022 general elections for governor, attorney general, controller, Senate and other statewide offices. In each case they lost.

Next year, it will be tougher for a Republican to finish at or near the top, though. “I still think there’s a good chance of two Democrats advancing, but I expect this race to ramp up fully after the holidays, with a sprint to the March 5 primary,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan firm that analyzes races.

The top two vote-getters move on to compete in the November general election.

Democratic voters could scatter. With three big Democratic contenders–Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee–claiming chunks of the vote while Republicans rally around a single candidate, that could be enough to propel the GOP contender into first or second place.

Republican Steve Garvey is already close. He was third, with 10%, in the November 11-14 Emerson Polling Institute/Inside California Politics survey of 1,000 registered voters. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, so the former Los Angeles Dodgers star is in the mix with frontrunners Schiff, D-Burbank, at 16%, and Porter, D-Irvine, at 13%. Lee, D-Oakland, had 9%.

John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican National Committee staffer, suggested another Republican-friendly scenario: “If two of the three (Democrats) fade in the stretch, then a Republican could place second,” he said.

History suggests Democrats won’t turn out as heavily as Republicans. Mitchell found that in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed for the nomination, Democratic turnout in California was 63%, 20 percentage points higher than the party’s 20-year average.

But in 2012, when Obama ran unopposed, Democratic turnout plunged to 31%. It went up again in 2016, when Clinton battled with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., to 54%. It was 55% when Sanders opposed Biden in 2000.

What this means, said Mitchell, is “Democrats have a tougher time turning out their voters when there is no top of the ticket partisan battle in the Democratic primary side. On the Republican side we don’t see the same drop in turnout .”

In 2020, Trump had the nomination secured long before Californians voted in their presidential primary, but Republican turnout was 55%..

It’s possible that Republicans continue to turn out in bigger numbers not only because of Trump, but because they tend to be older and part of a “socioeconomic strata that doesn’t just miss elections as much when they are less interesting,” Mitchell said.

The Garvey factor

Matt Rexroad, general consultant for the Garvey campaign, agreed with the Mitchell analysis, calling it “part of the reason” he was involved in that race.

In the Emerson poll, Garvey did particularly well among older voters, who are more likely to remember him from his playing days and who usually turn out in higher numbers. He tied with Lee at 13% among voters in their 60s, while Schiff had 24% and Porter 19%.

Among those over 70, Schiff drew 30% support while Garvey was next with 17%.

Porter’s campaign was confident about her standing in the race. “Since announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate nearly a year ago, Katie Porter has finished in the top two in every poll taken of likely California voters. With overwhelming support from young voters, Latinos, and women specifically, Katie is well-positioned for the general election,” said Mila Myles, campaign communications director.

A Schiff campaign spokesperson declined to comment. Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

No GOP candidate for statewide office has won since 2006, but independent analysts won’t rule out a GOP surprise.

“I think that could be a completely plausible scenario, but until this race gets more engaged it’s just hard to tell,’ said the Cook Report’s Taylor.