In Senate race, Steve Garvey won’t commit to supporting Trump in 2024. Is that a good strategy?

When the top four candidates for California’s U.S. Senate race took the debate stage Monday night, the three Democrats and moderators had the same question for Republican candidate Steve Garvey: Who will he vote for in this year’s presidential election?

It was a question that Garvey, a former Los Angeles Dodger, has seemingly tried to evade on the campaign trail, including during the debate.

“When the time comes, I’ll do exactly what I should do: I’ll look at the two opponents, I will determine what they did and at that time, I will make my choice,” Garvey said before arguing that the U.S. was safer under former President Donald Trump than President Joe Biden.

Garvey’s refusal to say outright whether he’d back the man who is most likely to lead his party’s ticket again this year garnered rebukes from his Democratic competitors, Reps. Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.

But could that strategy — avoiding aligning himself with an increasingly polarizing figure in American politics — be a smart one, especially given California’s unique primary system?

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In most primary elections in California, including a U.S. Senate race, the top two vote-getters in the March 5 election advance to the general, regardless of party affiliation.

“Garvey’s obviously decided that it’s worth the gamble to potentially alienate Trump voters here in order to reach a broader base of voters,” said Dan Schnur, a former campaign consultant who teaches about political messaging at UC Berkeley and USC.

“There certainly aren’t enough Trump supporters in California to elect a senator; what’s less clear is whether or not there’s enough of them to get a Senate candidate in the runoff. Garvey’s obviously decided there aren’t enough to get him through the primary so he’s trying to keep his distance.”

Annette Eliot, a Trump supporter and president of the Huntington Harbour Republican Women Federated, was less concerned by Garvey’s avoidance of the question on the debate stage because she saw it as the three Democrats ganging up on him.

“You have to appeal to all voters,” Eliot said. “You know how Trump evokes emotion — either overwhelmingly for him or overwhelmingly no way, I will not vote for him. … I think (Garvey) was being pressured, and he wasn’t going to take the bait.”

She took his debate message as: “I’m running as a Republican for Senate for all the people, for the people who want to vote for Trump and who don’t want to vote for Trump.”

And as long as Garvey continues to just keep his distance but not outright criticize Trump, said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who served in the Schwarzenegger administration, he should be fine with Republican primary voters. Those voters are more likely to rally behind Garvey the more Democrats and the media castigate him for not taking a position, he said.

“Show me another (Republican) Senate candidate who has taken as bold a position, not promising to vote for Trump if he’s the nominee,” Stutzman said. “It’s an extraordinary credit to him.”

Still, as Schnur points out, keeping distance from Trump — notorious for outright demanding loyalty — is risky.

Garvey not clearly campaigning on his support for Trump could open up the door for another Republican candidate to take up that mantle, but it’s unlikely that another candidate could get enough public attention, especially this close to the primary, to pull that off.

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“The question is whether Trump or his surrogates decide to elevate the issue,” Schnur said.

There are nearly twice as many registered Democrats in California than Republicans (10.35 million to 5.87 million) with no party preference voters not far behind (4.91 million). But a recent poll from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found support for Trump among California Republicans is rising as the primary barrels closer. The survey found 66% of likely GOP voters in the state back the former president, up from 57% in October.

If those figures hold out in the primary, that means Trump could — under the new rules set by the California GOP over the summer — sweep all of the state’s 169 delegates, about 14% of what’s needed for the Republican presidential nomination. (A Republican candidate needs more than half of the statewide primary vote to earn all those delegates.)

Garvey has voted for Trump in his past two bids for the White House. For 2024, he’s “being deliberative in who he votes for,” taking time to analyze all the candidates, watch debates and read articles, said Matt Shupe, Garvey’s campaign spokesperson.

“I don’t think it’s important. His message has always been: he’s running for the vote of every Californian, whether you’re a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter,” Shupe said.

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