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Special election to replace former Rep. Katie Hill set for March 3, California primary day

Republican Steve Knight of Palmdale, shown in 2016, faces an uphill fight to recapture the congressional seat he lost last year to Democrat Katie Hill.
Republican Steve Knight of Palmdale, shown in 2016, faces an uphill fight to recapture the congressional seat he lost last year to Democrat Katie Hill.
(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called a March 3 special election to pick a successor to former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, the Santa Clarita lawmaker who stepped down amid accusations that she’d had affairs with congressional and campaign staff members.

The 25th Congressional District vote will be on the same day as California’s presidential primary. The highly competitive Democratic presidential contest could draw an outsize turnout of the party’s voters.

The district, covering Simi Valley, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and part of Lancaster, has become one of the most fiercely competitive in a state that strongly favors Democrats. Hill ousted Republican Rep. Steve Knight a year ago as suburban voters nationwide revolted against President Trump and his GOP allies in Congress.

If nobody wins a majority March 3, a runoff between the first- and second-place finishers will take place May 12. The winner will serve the remainder of Hill’s term.

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In a fluke of the election calendar that risks confusing the district’s voters, the primary for the regular November 2020 general election will occur simultaneously with the special election March 3. Residents will be able to vote for the same House candidate twice on the same ballot — once to replace Hill for the rest of 2020 and a second time for the two-year term that starts in January 2021.

“That is the biggest challenge: communicating to voters, especially to those who are diligent about following the law, that it will be legal to vote for me twice on the same ballot,” said Assemblywoman Christy Smith of Santa Clarita, who has quickly consolidated the support of Democratic leaders for her campaign to succeed Hill.

Another Democrat in the race is Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks,” a left-leaning online politics show. The former Republican is now an outspoken supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Uygur, who lives about 30 miles outside the district in West Los Angeles, apologized in 2017 for a series of demeaning statements he made about women in the early 2000s.

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Thursday, in the announcement of his candidacy, Uygur said, “I’m going to fight to end corruption and get everyone in CA-25 higher wages.”

On the Republican side, at least four candidates are in the race.

Knight, a former Los Angeles police officer who served two terms in the House, is running to recapture his seat. Two of his former campaign aides were instrumental in bringing down Hill.

Knight said he knew nothing about the allegations against Hill until they were published along with naked photos of her. “We had absolutely nothing to do with what happened on this whole thing with Congresswoman Hill,” he said.

He is seeking the support of House GOP leaders but so far has failed to clear the field.

“That’s not the way this is shaping up,” Knight said. “Part of running in a race is there will be other people running in the race, and you just have to deal with it.”

Knight’s GOP rivals include George Papadopoulos, a 2016 Trump campaign advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia scandal, and Angela Underwood Jacobs, a Lancaster City Council member.

Papadopoulos, who served 12 days in prison and now lists his address in the Hollywood Hills’ Beachwood Canyon, did not respond to an interview request. But in a fundraising email Tuesday, he said he “bore the brunt of the Deep State’s attack on our President.”

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“The political establishment did everything they could to railroad me and take out President Trump,” Papadopoulos wrote, echoing the theme of a book he was promoting this week in Florida.

Another Republican in the contest is former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, now an executive at Raytheon. Like Knight, Garcia opposes abortion rights and new restrictions on guns, and he supports repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Underwood Jacobs, a bank executive, says she’ll champion fiscal restraint, border security and military strength.

Garcia has a big head start on fundraising. By the end of September, he had collected more than $483,000, and Underwood Jacobs had brought in $225,000, according to the most recent financial reports. The rest of the candidates have not yet filed financial statements.

Also contemplating entering the race is Mike Cernovich, a right-wing social media provocateur in Orange County who promotes conspiracy theories. He tweeted Wednesday about the possibility of debating Uygur. Smith, who had already taunted Papadopoulos for carpetbagging, responded: “How about all of you man spread in your own damn districts?!”

Hill picked up the thread, calling Smith “a local gal” who can keep the district in Democratic hands. “Boys, please be gentlemen and step aside,” she tweeted. “She’s got this.”

Assemblywoman Christy Smith
Assemblywoman Christy Smith of Santa Clarita has drawn wide support among California Democratic leaders for her campaign to succeed former Rep. Katie Hill.
(Robert Gourley / Los Angeles Times)

Smith, who has served 11 months in the Assembly, is a former U.S. Education Department policy analyst who was on the Newhall School District board for nine years. She supports abortion rights and new gun control measures, and she has vowed to make the fight against climate change a top priority, citing frequent wildfires in the district.

Given Trump’s unpopularity, it will be challenging for Republicans to retake the seat. The district was once solidly conservative, with many voters working in aerospace, the military or law enforcement, but voter demographics have changed.

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California’s sorely diminished Republican Party has few footholds left in Los Angeles County, and it risks losing its biggest one in the midterm election on Tuesday: the House seat of Rep.

Relatively cheap housing has drawn a huge influx of new residents, many of them Latinos and Asian Americans who tend to favor Democrats. The district’s voters are now 38% Democratic, 32% Republican and 25% unaligned with any party, according to registration figures released last week.

Hill, a former executive of a nonprofit serving the homeless, raised $8.4 million for her campaign to oust Knight, an extraordinary sum for a House race. Knight had just $2.6 million to defend his seat.

Former Rep. Katie Hill
Democrat Katie Hill of Santa Clarita has given up the House seat she won last year.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Hill resigned Nov. 1 after the two former Knight aides disclosed the allegations of her affairs on conservative websites. One of them published nude photos of Hill, along with her private text messages. Hill has denied having a sexual relationship with a male congressional aide, but she acknowledged having one with a woman on her 2018 campaign staff.

In a final House speech, Hill apologized to family and friends, and to the thousands of volunteers who worked to get her elected. She said she was leaving Congress because of a ruthless political climate and “a misogynistic culture” that helped her estranged husband bring down her career.

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.


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