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GOP fights to hold L.A.-area congressional seat that Katie Hill flipped blue in 2018

Republican Rep. Mike Garcia and Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith
Republican Rep. Mike Garcia and Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith will face off to represent the 25th Congressional District, which takes in Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster.
(Associated Press)

California’s Republican Party is fighting to hold onto a congressional seat in a large suburban swath north of Los Angeles — an election that could hinge on President Trump’s popularity in the area.

Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, 44, won the May special election to represent the 25th Congressional District, which includes Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster and is a mix of sprawling residential developments, horse ranches and desert land located about an hour’s drive from downtown L.A.

He faces Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith, 51, in a race widely viewed as a toss-up.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the district, but pockets remain red. Trump flags dot the hillsides above the 14 Freeway near Palmdale and “Recall Newsom” signs wave outside businesses in Santa Clarita.

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Sipping coffee outside an Acton cafe, Doug Craig, 79, praised Trump for imposing trade sanctions against China and bemoaned California and its liberal policies. “It’s too far to the left,” said Craig, whose cowboy boots were embossed with American flags. “I’m not happy about it.”

Voters such as Craig will be key to Garcia’s chances. The seat opened up after first-term Rep. Katie Hill resigned in 2019 amid a House Ethics Committee probe into allegations that she had an affair with one of her aides.

Garcia finished second to Smith in the March primary, but won the May election to serve out the remainder of Hill’s term. He ran on a message that he wouldn’t let the nation turn into California, criticizing the state for its regulatory hurdles, high taxes and homelessness.

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His victory marked the first time in more than two decades that the GOP turned a California congressional seat from blue to red, earning the former U.S. Navy pilot and defense industry executive a public congratulations from Trump when Garcia attended a White House event in July.

Political consultant Matt Klink, who isn’t involved in the race, said Garcia’s biggest challenge is that Trump is unpopular in L.A. County, where most of the district’s voters reside. A large Democratic turnout to vote against Trump will help Smith, he said.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has an overwhelming lead in the county, with 73% of voters backing him, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released this week.

Hillary Clinton carried the district by nearly 7 percentage points in 2016, even as voters reelected Republican Rep. Steve Knight. Knight was unseated by Hill two years later.

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Klink said Garcia’s military and defense background is appealing in the district, which has a long history with the aerospace industry. But the candidate is likely more conservative on social issues than the district’s voters, he added.

“The right Republican can win,” Klink said. “It’s one of the few congressional races in L.A. County that’s still competitive.”

Trump urged voters to back Garcia in the special election, but has been quieter on social media about the rematch.

Garcia said this week he was proud to be on the ballot with the president.

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“He’s done a good job on the international stage, I think he’s done a great job with the economy,” Garcia told NBC4. “We will get through this COVID crisis. You know, we’ve learned a lot and we’re going to get stronger as a result.”

In the short time he’s been in office, Garcia has co-sponsored a bill that he said will “preserve the flexibility [that] the gig workforce needs and preempt job-killing bills like AB 5 from creeping to the national level.”

Garcia declined to be interviewed for this article but provided a statement criticizing both “liberal career politicians” and Assembly Bill 5, the California law that limits when a company can classify workers as independent contractors, requiring more of them to be hired as employees and provided an array of workplace benefits.

At a debate held by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce last week, the candidates clashed over the state law and government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires. The Bobcat fire in the Antelope Valley and the Lake fire near Lake Hughes recently burned through the region.

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“Climate change is real,” said Smith, linking the issue to the spate of blazes. “What we are experiencing here in California, everything from sea level rise to the significant wildfires where there is devastating property damage, has a real economic impact. And we are at a huge loss if we don’t begin to address the root causes, as well as the possible solutions.”

Garcia accused his opponent of “burying her head in the sand” by attributing the fires to climate change. He said that the planet is warming and that he drives an electric car to reduce emissions, but also called for deforestation in response to the wildfires.

“What we’re experiencing here is the end result of Sacramento, and frankly, the federal government, not investing in deforestation programs, not getting rid of the dead brush and the leaves that have been accumulating over the last 40 years,” Garcia said.

Trump, who has endorsed Garcia, has also blamed California’s fires on poor forest management.

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In an interview with The Times, Smith said the election was “a contest between moving America forward or moving backward.”

She criticized Garcia’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act and said she wants to protect the act and add a public healthcare option for anyone who wants to it. She blames healthcare costs for contributing to the death of her mother. Smith said her mother couldn’t afford her prescription medicine to treat her heart disease.

The Santa Clarita resident also released a video talking about abortion and her struggle to decide whether to end her second pregnancy in light of serious health issues she endured during her previous one.

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“I am someone who benefitted from the right to choose, I want my daughters to have that same right and I don’t want that right taken away by someone like Mike Garcia or others like him,” she said.

Garcia has said he supports abortion only when the mother’s life is in danger. He joined the bulk of House Republicans in signing onto antiabortion bills, including one that would define life as beginning at the moment of conception.

Smith worked at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration and started a nonprofit to raise funds for school technology. She’s authored legislation to improve charter school accountability, make it easier for victims of labor and trafficking crimes to obtain restitution, and help at-risk populations evacuate from wildfires.

She also helped pass legislation to exempt some professions from the controversial gig worker law, so that those workers can maintain their independent status.

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Electing Smith and ousting Trump spurred Northridge resident Loraine Lundquist to volunteer for Smith’s campaign. Lundquist, a scientist who lives just outside the district, helped Smith at a recent meet-and-greet — done through car windows — in Porter Ranch.

Lundquist, who unsuccessfully sought a L.A. City Council seat, said Trump is “absolutely a factor” in the race.

"[Garcia] supports Trump and is voting with Trump and refuses to call him out even after Trump is spreading misinformation about this pandemic and the voting process,” Lundquist said.

Since May, outside groups have spent at least $17 million in the November race, among the highest such totals of any House contest in this election, said Rob Pyers, research director at California Target Book, a subscriber-based election guide. The outside spending has been split about evenly to support the two candidates, he said.


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