Democratic Rep. Katie Hill’s decision to resign from Congress has given Republicans an unexpected chance to recapture her House district on the northern edge of the Los Angeles suburbs, but President Trump’s unpopularity in California will make it a steep challenge for the GOP.
“Assuming that Donald Trump is running for reelection in 2020, the only hope that a Republican trying to recapture this seat — or any seat that was lost in 2018 — would have, would be to distance himself or herself as far as they could from the national ticket,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book election guide.
Republicans held California’s 25th Congressional District for 26 years until Hill ousted Steve Knight a year ago.
Mark Gonzalez, the Los Angeles County Democratic chairman, said the party should unite behind one candidate.
“We worked too hard with our brothers and sisters in labor and the residents of the district to make sure we won that seat,” he said. “We can’t afford a fight within our party.”
Beth Miller, a veteran GOP operative, said Republicans’ chances have suddenly improved simply because they no longer need to unseat a sitting member of Congress.
“Anytime an elected official resigns his or her seat, it does present an opportunity for the other party,” she said. “It’s more of a wide-open opportunity without having to run up against the incumbent and the kind of money incumbents receive.”
Hill has not said when her resignation will take effect. Once the seat is vacant, Gov. Gavin Newsom will have two weeks to call a special election. It must be scheduled more than four months in the future.
A primary would be held first — a little more than two months before the scheduled special election. Any candidate who gets more than 50% in the primary would win the seat. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters would face off in the special election.
The winner would have to compete for the seat again in November 2020.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the election timing. Under one scenario local Democrats believe he may follow, he would call the special election to coincide with the previously scheduled March 3 election, meaning that the special primary election would take place on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.
The Cook Political Report changed the district’s rating from “Likely Democratic” to “Lean Democratic” on Sunday just after Hill’s announcement that she was stepping down.
Politicians in both parties quickly adjusted their plans. Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita) announced her candidacy on Monday and released a list of endorsements. Other Democrats said to be considering a run include Secretary of State Alex Padilla and two candidates who unsuccessfully ran in 2018, Bryan Caforio and Jess Phoenix.
Knight, a former Los Angeles police officer who served two terms in the House before Hill bounced him from office, said Monday he might run for his old seat. “We’re looking at the whole thing,” Knight told KHTS radio. “We want to take back the seat. If that means me jumping into the race, then that’s what we’ll do, and if not, that’s OK.”
Other Republicans who have already declared they’re in the race include L.A. County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Cripe, former Navy pilot Mike Garcia and Lancaster City Councilwoman Angela Underwood Jacobs.
A big challenge for the GOP, however, will be the changing demographics of the district, which covers Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and part of Lancaster. The district’s white voters, many of them in law enforcement, aerospace or the military, have long favored Republicans. But the white share of the population has steadily dropped in recent years as Latinos, Asian Americans and others searching for affordable housing have migrated further away from central Los Angeles.
Those changes have proved damaging for Republicans because the new arrivals tilt toward Democrats. In 2012, 40% of the district’s voters were Republican; now it’s just 32%. At the same time, the portion of Democrats rose from 35% to 37% and those unaffiliated with any party — a group that has strongly sided against Republicans in the Trump era — jumped from 19% to 25%.
In the congressional election a year ago, Trump’s tumultuous presidency was a major liability for Knight and many other Republicans in California.
Trump’s fiery rhetoric on immigration — highly toxic in California — in the midterm election’s closing weeks helped Democrats capture seven House seats held by the GOP. Republicans were left with just seven of the state’s 53 House seats. For the first time since the 1930s, Republicans lost all seven of Orange County’s congressional seats, certifying the party’s demise in what was once one of America’s most reliable conservative strongholds.
Given Hill’s 9-point victory over Knight in 2018, many Democrats assumed it would be one of the least vulnerable House seats newly captured from Republicans.
Hill, 32, who previously worked at a nonprofit serving the homeless, announced her resignation days after conservative media outlets reported she had an affair with a male congressional aide and that she and her husband were in a three-way sexual relationship with a female campaign staffer. The sites also published intimate photos of Hill, who is bisexual.
Hill denied the affair with the legislative aide, which would have run afoul of new House rules barring such relationships. She admitted to an inappropriate affair with the campaign aide. She blamed her estranged husband for releasing the pictures and allegations in the course of a nasty divorce.