Schiff's latest ad boosts Republican Senate rival Steve Garvey. Rep. Katie Porter hates it

Rep. Adam Schiff speaks to supporters during a senate campaign event in Salinas, Calif., Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Former Los Angeles Dodgers MVP Steve Garvey is running for the open U.S. Senate seat in California as a Republican, photographed in Santa Monica on October 9, 2023. Rep. Katie Porter participates in a debate on stage with other democrats who are running to succeed Sen. Feinstein at Westing Bonaventure Hotel on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Nic Coury / For The Times, Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times, Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
The Senate campaign for Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), left, released an ad comparing him to Republican rival and ex-Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey, center. Another top Democratic in the race, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), right, called the ad a political ploy. (Los Angeles Times)

Republican Senate contender and former baseball All-Star Steve Garvey is getting a campaign boost from an unlikely source — Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a top rival in the race for the seat once held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Schiff's campaign released an ad portraying Garvey, a political novice considered a long shot to win the coveted seat, as his greatest competitor in a close 2024 Senate race that features two other top Democrats: Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland.

"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.

While the message will turn off Democratic voters in the state, it may increase the former baseball player's appeal to Republican voters — as it is designed to do, according to two political strategists.

"It's pretty clear Schiff is trying to bolster Garvey's credibility as his opponent in the runoff and then Schiff can take the rest of the summer off," said Democratic political consultant Garry South, who ran Gov. Gray Davis' successfull 2002 reelection campaign.

Read more: Who will replace the late Sen. Feinstein in 2024 election? Meet the potential candidates

Because of Democrats’ overwhelming voter registration edge in the state and California’s open primary system, in which the two candidates who receive the most votes in the March 5 primary move on to the November general election regardless of party, the race for the Senate is in effect over if Schiff and a Republican take the top spots in March.

Porter criticized the ad as a political ploy.

"Adam Schiff knows he will lose to me in November. That's what this brazenly cynical ad is about — furthering his own political career, boxing out qualified Democratic women candidates, and boosting a Republican candidate to do it," she wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. "We need honest leadership, not political games.

Schiff's campaign argued that voters need to know about Garvey's record given his recent rise in the polls. In the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, which was co-sponsored by The Times, Garvey finished in third with support from 13% of likely voters. He trailed behind Porter and Schiff, who had 17% and 21% support, respectively.

"Steve Garvey will be a rubber stamp for Donald Trump’s extreme agenda if elected," Schiff spokeswoman Marisol Samayoa said. "California voters deserve to know the differences between the two top-polling candidates.”

The ad began airing on television Thursday morning. Samayoa declined to reveal how much the campaign had spent but said it was a multimillion-dollar statewide ad buy.

California is home to some of the most expensive media markets in the nation, so mounting an effective television campaign across the state is incredibly costly.

Schiff's campaign has the resources to fund such an effort — the Burbank Democrat reported having $35 million in the bank at the end of 2023 in a campaign finance disclosure filed with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday. Barring massive fundraising in January or a infusion of some of his wealth into his campaign, Garvey will not be able to fund a broad statewide television buy based on the $308,000 cash on hand he reported in his FEC filing.

Read more: Steve Garvey lags behind Democrats in California Senate race fundraising

Garvey spokesman Matt Shupe called Schiff's ad "divisive rhetoric that aims to separate us."

“Steve Garvey’s campaign has always been and will continue to be about bringing all Californians together for commonsense, compassionate solutions to today’s real problems, not trite political hatchet jobs," Shupe said.

Read more: Steve Garvey touts 'family values' in his Senate bid. Some of his kids tell another story

However, similar efforts have been successfully used in past California campaigns, including in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Democrat Gavin Newsom's campaign elevated little-known Republican John Cox's gubernatorial bid by ostensibly criticizing him over his support for Trump and gun rights, and his antiabortion views in an ad.

Republican voters coalesced behind Cox, giving the businessman a strong enough finish in the primary to edge Democrat and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to finish second and face off against Newsom in the November election. Newsom trounced Cox in that election.

Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist who worked on Villaraigosa's 2018 gubernatorial campaign, called the Schiff campaign ad a "smart move. The best way in this top-two primary system in California we have is to elevate one Republican."

He expected the move to be successful in boxing Porter and Lee out of the race.

"Increasingly what's happening is the Republican is just becoming a pawn in Democratic primary games to checkmate the person in second place," Madrid said. "That's what happened with Antonio, and it appears to be happening with Porter and Lee at this point."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.