Enjoy it while you can, California Republicans … all three of you. That’s an exaggeration, but it also puts the potentially stunning outcome of next week’s special election in the state’s 25th congressional district into its proper perspective. Democrats flipped the nominally even district in the past two elections, with Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in 2016 by almost seven points, and then-challenger Katie Hill defeating incumbent Steve Knight in 2018 by almost nine points.
Hill’s resignation under a cloud of scandal forced a special election to fill the remainder of her term, and the COVID-19 outbreak has forced it to a mail-only system. Politico reports that the combination of the two has this Los Angeles suburban district about ready to drop back into the Republican column. For a while, anyway:
Tuesday’s special election runoff in the Los Angeles suburbs, which is taking place because of former Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation last year, has Democrats bracing for defeat in a district they flipped by 9 points in the 2018 midterms. Armed with a highly touted recruit and an older, less diverse electorate than in general elections, Republicans feel they are on the verge of an upset.
Private polls show the race in the state’s 25th District is within just a few points, and Democrats are already downplaying expectations for their nominee, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, citing depressed turnout in the midst of a pandemic and the negative impact of the scandal surrounding Hill, who resigned amid allegations that she had inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers. …
Of more than 118,000 returned ballots counted as of Friday, 44 percent are from registered Republicans, and just 36 percent are from Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan company that analyzes voter data.
“Look at the age breakdown,” Mitchell said in an interview, pointing to turnout rates that showed that 15 percent of voters under 35 years old have returned their ballots thus far, compared to 49 percent of those 65 and older. “That’s a big deal. The Latino population is pretty significant here,” he added, “but they’re turning out at half the rate of white voters.”
Republicans ran a more appealing challenger this time around, too. Mike Garcia is a newcomer, a Navy aviation veteran who can attract a younger and more diverse set of voters. Garcia also has the good fortune to run in a crisis in which Democrats control everything in the city and state, and therefore have to answer for the rising frustration and resentment resulting from the shutdown. The culmination of all these factors might flip CA-25 back to Republicans.
That doesn’t mean Garcia hasn’t used traditional Republican messaging in this campaign. He won an endorsement from Donald Trump and hammered Smith on her tax-and-spend policies in Sacramento, too:
Garcia has leaned into his background with the Navy, blanketing ads and digital videos with images of fighter planes and photos of him during his time in the Navy.
“After more than a year of running, the differences between my opponent and me are obvious – I am a former Navy fighter pilot and small businessman who wants to lower taxes for Californians, while my opponent is a liberal Assemblywoman who wants to raise taxes in Washington because that’s exactly what she’s done in Sacramento,” Garcia said in a statement to ABC News. …
Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the campaign arm for the House GOP, has waded into the race, spending weeks hammering Smith and running ads that cast her as “bad for workers” and take aim at the state lawmaker over taxes.
There will be some in-person voting on Tuesday as well. That has become a point of contention in California, as Gavin Newsom has insisted on sending every voter in the district a mail-in ballot too. Most likely, though, the mail-in ballots will be the overwhelming majority of the vote, and it’s an open question as to which demographics would be most likely to “break quarantine” to go to a common-use polling booth, for that matter.
Garcia shouldn’t spend too much time measuring the drapes even if he does win on Tuesday. In less than six months, Garcia will have to defend the seat in the 2020 general election, and Democrats are already plotting the rematch. This time around, some key allies (EMILY’s List, House Majority PAC) sat on the sidelines because the outlay wasn’t worth a meaningless vote flip for slightly less than six months’ worth of voting. They’ll be back when Smith runs in November and spending money to influence a more-normal presidential election turnout.
Still, Garcia will have some advantage as an incumbent who deserves a shot at a full term to prove his mettle. Plus, those same entities who will jump back into this race will be spending money all over the country in hundreds of other races, too. They had an opportunity in this special election to focus on one seat, and passed it up. Smith won’t have the chance for that kind of support in November.
If House Democrats lose a Los Angeles suburban seat to the GOP in a special election, that’s easy to shrug off. If they lose it again in November, it might portend some real problems for hanging onto a House majority. That makes this special election worth watching.