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Sizing up the results of California's open Senate primary on Super Tuesday

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

California voters this fall will decide between a Democratic congressman and a Republican former baseball player to fill a U.S. Senate seat that is open for the first time since 1992, when the late Dianne Feinstein was first elected. Marisa Lagos covers California politics for member station KQED and is with us now. Good morning.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. Tell us which two candidates made the runoff.

LAGOS: The Democrat's going to be Representative Adam Schiff. He's represented parts of Los Angeles in the House for more than two decades. And he led the first impeachment inquiry into former President Trump in 2019. And he's really made pushing back against Trump and, quote, "saving democracy" a centerpiece of his campaign. On the GOP side, we have former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, who retired in 1987 but is still fondly remembered by baseball fans. And he toyed with the idea of entering politics for decades but only jumped in this fall after Feinstein died. Here he is at a victory party in Palm Desert last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE GARVEY: This is the first game of a double-header, so keep the evening of November 5 open...

(LAUGHTER)

GARVEY: ...As we will celebrate again.

LAGOS: So a lot more baseball references ahead for all of us here in California. And honestly, Garvey might not have made the top two in this primary at all without the help of Adam Schiff.

MARTIN: Say more about that.

LAGOS: Yeah. So Garvey entered late. He didn't raise a lot of money. He didn't do a ton of campaigning. But Schiff basically poured in $10 million into running ads about Garvey. This was largely on conservative media outlets like Fox News, and they were kind of ostensibly attack ads painting Garvey as a Trump Republican. But for conservative voters, it served as an introduction to Garvey in a huge state where he couldn't afford to run TV ads of his own.

MARTIN: OK. so why would Schiff want to face Garvey this fall?

LAGOS: We have a kind of unique primary system here. It's an open primary, so all the candidates run on one ballot in the primary, and the top-two vote-getters move on to the runoff, regardless of party. So in an overwhelmingly Democratic state where less than one-quarter of registered voters are Republican, Schiff wanted to head off his most formidable Democratic opponent, who was Orange County Congresswoman Katie Porter, and it looks like it worked. He will now have a much easier time in the November general election.

MARTIN: So let's talk about how this race is going to look. And I understand that Schiff's election-night party was almost taken over by people protesting the situation in Gaza.

LAGOS: Yeah. Listen to this. This is how it sounded there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: Cease-fire now.

ADAM SCHIFF: I want to thank you all.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: Cease-fire now.

LAGOS: You know that protest echoes what we've seen elsewhere in the country, and it might be a taste of what's ahead not just for Schiff, but for President Biden, who did overwhelmingly win in California on Tuesday night's primary. But let's be clear, given the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in California, it would be extraordinary if Garvey could really mount a serious challenge this fall.

MARTIN: So this isn't seen as a competitive race for Republicans, but there are some tight House races in California, and that could help decide who controls Congress next year. Is there any way in which this matchup could influence those races?

LAGOS: You know, it could. We're going to have to wait and see. I know some national Democrats are probably happy that there won't be an expensive Democrat-on-Democrat race between Schiff and Porter in this blue state that would suck money from elsewhere, but having Garvey up toward the top of the ticket could actually excite some GOP voters or conservatives who maybe aren't as enthusiastic about Trump. So we'll kind of have to see how that plays out.

MARTIN: That is KQED's Marisa Lagos. Marisa, thank you.

LAGOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Marisa Lagos