Anywhere else, the special election to fill the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Katie Hill’s first term might have been a simple rematch between the Republican she beat in 2018 and the Democratic Party favorite to be her successor.
But in California’s 25th Congressional District, the rare open competitive seat in the Los Angeles media market has drawn an eclectic field of candidates — including a progressive TV star, a retired Navy pilot and businessman, and George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who was convicted of lying to the FBI — causing deep divisions in both political parties.
Then there’s the risk of confusion among voters on the northern edge of L.A.’s suburban sprawl, who will be asked cast ballots twice on March 3 — once in the special election and again to nominate a candidate for a new term starting in January 2021.
In the likely event that none of the 12 candidates running in the special election wins a majority of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a May 12 runoff. The top two candidates in the 13-person primary will face off again in the November general election.
The seat, one of the 41 Republican-held districts the party flipped in 2018, is a potential bellwether for the November election and Democrats’ ability to maintain control of the House.
Hill, who defeated two-term Rep. Steve Knight in the last election, announced her resignation from Congress on Oct. 27. Her decision came after a conservative website, in posts by former campaign advisors to Knight, published nude photos of her without her consent and accused her of having an affair with a congressional aide, a violation of House rules. Hill denied having an affair with a congressional staffer. Knight, who is running to retake the seat, denied any involvement in his former aides’ posts.
Democratic groups and leaders have rallied around state Assemblywoman Christy Smith as their best chance to hold on to the congressional seat. She’s been backed by dozens of state, local and national leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is campaigning with her on Sunday. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also backs Smith and has spent $468,000 attacking one of her Republican rivals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“While I appreciate the widespread support that’s come from just about every institution that I value weighing in on these races, I don’t ever take any election for granted,” Smith said.
Home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a bustling aerospace industry, and a strong law enforcement community, California’s 25th Congressional District was long a Republican stronghold. It includes Santa Clarita, Simi Valley and parts of Antelope Valley.
But the district’s demographics have changed in recent years, as rising home prices in Los Angeles sent more families north, increasing the area’s population and its diversity. In 2018, that shift helped Hill beat Knight by nine percentage points. Democrats’ registered-voter advantage over Republicans has only grown since then, from four points to six.
Smith’s Assembly seat, which she also flipped in 2018, overlaps with 58% of the district, including traditionally conservative Simi Valley. The former Department of Education analyst and self-described “pragmatic policymaker” has written eight policy bills that became law since she arrived in Sacramento last year, including legislation on charter school accountability and restitution for victims of human trafficking.
She’s also taken some votes and positions that put her at odds with the progressive wing of her party on healthcare, affordable housing and criminal justice.
“I can say unequivocally that I don’t regret any of the votes that I took in my first legislative session,” Smith said. “I was very deliberate, very thoughtful about every single vote and wouldn’t have changed it.”
Two weeks after Smith launched her campaign, Cenk Uygur, the founder and co-host of the progressive online news show “The Young Turks,” announced he would run. His show, launched in 2002, has nearly 4.7 million followers on YouTube.
Uygur’s upstart campaign has been hobbled by several factors — he doesn’t live in the district, his history of offensive remarks about women and minorities resurfaced early on in the campaign, and he’s attempted to stall a bid to unionize at his company.
But his large platform and a strong base of supporters have given him an outsize voice in the primary. That was evident at a recent candidate forum at CSU Northridge, where a boisterous contingent of Uygur’s fans, many wearing “Cenk 2020" shirts, cheered for him throughout the night and booed his opponents.
Uygur has criticized Smith for accepting campaign funds from corporate donors, opposing policies like “Medicare for all,” and expressing willingness to work with Republicans. Smith accepted corporate contributions during her runs for state Assembly but has pledged to not accept them while running for Congress, her campaign said.
“I wanted to give voters a choice,” Uygur said Tuesday. “If they really want Democrats to work with [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump they can say, ‘Great, that’s it. I’ve got my candidate, it’s Christy Smith.’ If they want a progressive candidate who’s going to fight like hell to get money out of politics and fight for Democrats, well, that’s me and it’s definitely not her.”
Smith said Uygur’s campaign was a stunt. “I believe that as much as he wants to present himself as a viable candidate here, he is an entertainer running a con. He needs to build and maintain his personal platform in order to be successful in the media market that he’s in,” she said. “My biggest regret is that it’s unfortunate he chose this district.”
Similar tensions have arisen on the GOP side. Mike Garcia, a small-business owner and former Navy pilot and Raytheon executive, was one of several Republicans who entered the field in early 2019 to challenge the incumbent.
The staunch Trump supporter announced his bid in April and began racking up endorsements, including from former U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who had been the district’s longest-serving congressman. At the time, Knight made it clear he had no interest in running.
“I talked to [Knight] again before I endorsed Mike, and he told me he wasn’t interested and was not going to run,” he said. “I endorsed Mike because I thought he was a great candidate, would make a great congressman.”
Then Hill resigned. Knight, an Army veteran who spent 18 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, formally entered the race less than two weeks later.
“Endorsements are great, I like having endorsements, but votes are what gets you into office,” said Knight, who served on the Palmdale City Council and in both chambers of the state Legislature before being elected to Congress in 2014.
In an interview, Knight stood by his record in Congress, where he focused on veteran care and the aerospace industry; he pushed back against accusations that he was absent from the district during his time in office. One issue that hurt him in 2018, he said, was the widespread media attention Hill’s campaign received and the financial resources the Democratic Party put behind her.
“Katie Hill was a celebrity and everybody was talking to her and she was on the news and all this, and I was just doing my job,” he said.
Garcia suggests Knight grew complacent. “The money for Katie Hill didn’t come in until after they recognized that there was an opportunity,” he said. “The investments made by the Democratic Party were the product of them seeing weakness, them seeing someone who really wasn’t working hard to keep the seat.”
Garcia has raised $1.2 million since April. Knight has raised about $209,000, less than any of the top four candidates. Even after Knight got into the race, Garcia won the backing of the Los Angeles and Ventura County Republican parties. Knight’s most prominent backer is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
Papadopoulos, who doesn’t live in the district, has raised just $124,000. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. He spent 12 days in prison and has since become a fixture in conservative media. His Twitter feed is a mixture of campaign promotion and tweets on the Russia investigation, his recent book and media appearances.