During the pandemic, Republicans see a rare political opportunity in California

Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith
Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith are locked in a congressional race that both sides rate a toss-up.
(Handout; Associated Press)

There was no such thing as YouTube or Twitter. President Clinton was on the brink of impeachment. Donald Trump was a New York real estate developer, building his first golf course.

The year was 1998, and it was the last time California Republicans managed to flip a congressional seat from blue to red.

After more than two decades of losing, that futility may soon come to an end.


A special election to fill a vacant House seat to the north of Los Angeles is highly competitive, both sides agree, pitting Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith against first-time Republican candidate Mike Garcia.

The closeness is due in good part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The contest is one of two special congressional elections being held Tuesday amid the strictures arising from the novel coronavirus, which has reduced competition to a bunkered campaign of texting, remote voter outreach, virtual appearances and — in California — millions of dollars in online and television advertising. The other open seat, in rural Wisconsin, is expected to easily remain in GOP hands.

California’s state government faces a $54-billion budget deficit through next summer, according to an analysis released Thursday.

The pandemic is, not surprisingly, inescapable. Campaign ads are replete with scenes of doctors and nurses, closed businesses and grim headlines recounting the rising toll. (One spot showing Smith addressing a roomful of supporters dutifully notes: “All footage filmed prior to stay at home order.”)

Elections like the one Tuesday are typically low-turnout affairs, and that often benefits Republicans, as older, more conservative voters can be counted on to cast their ballots more reliably than younger, more moderate ones.

The fact that most of the election will be conducted by mail, with get-out-the-vote efforts limited by social distancing, may also help Garcia. A ballot was mailed to each of the 25th District’s roughly 425,000 voters, with return postage paid. As of Saturday, 39% of GOP voters had mailed in their ballots compared with 25% of Democrats, according to Political Data Inc., an election analysis firm.

(On Saturday, President Trump accused Democrats of trying to steal the congressional seat after Los Angeles County’s elections supervisor added an in-person voting center in Lancaster, which has substantial black and Latino populations. The move followed requests from, among others, the city’s Republican mayor.)

The contest is being held to fill the seat vacated last fall by Democratic freshman Katie Hill, who resigned after nude photos of her were leaked and she faced a House Ethics Committee probe into allegations of an improper affair with a congressional aide.

Hill recently surfaced — to the chagrin of some Democrats — in a video ad criticizing Trump’s handling of the pandemic and urging voters to take part in the special election. Privately, party strategists said they would have preferred the ex-congresswoman remain out of sight.

Garcia, 44, a defense industry executive and former Navy fighter pilot, has made Hill’s conduct a part of his campaign.

“The last year and a half has been an embarrassment for our district,” he wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal, “and it’s time we restore integrity to our representation in our nation’s capitol.”

Garcia has also vigorously campaigned against Democrats in Sacramento — even more than he has taken on Washington — saying the party’s dominance has turned California into a hellscape of homelessness, over-regulation and high taxes.

“I don’t want my nation to become what this state has become,” Garcia said in a Zoom debate sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

The 25th Congressional District sprawls through suburbs and high desert from Simi Valley, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita and Palmdale to a portion of Lancaster. It remained safely in Republican hands for decades until Hill won the seat in 2018 as part of a blue wave that netted 40 seats nationwide and put Democrats in control of the House.

Smith, 50, a former U.S. Department of Education analyst and veteran of the Newhall school board, was elected to the Assembly in 2018 in a district that overlaps about 60% of the congressional turf. Her campaign has focused heavily on tying Garcia to Trump, whom he ardently supports.

One Democratic ad interspersed the president’s statements downplaying the coronavirus with news accounts of its spread and footage of Garcia extolling Trump’s performance as president. Another said Garcia would fail to protect people with preexisting conditions — a reference to a statement he made last summer favoring repeal of the Affordable Care Act — “and hike up costs for lifesaving drugs.”

The attack echoed the strategy Democrats used to great effect in 2018, when the midterm election served as a referendum on Trump and GOP efforts to kill the program they deride as Obamacare.

The Zoom debate — each candidate appearing from home, onscreen in their own little box — was the one (sort of) face-to-face encounter of the campaign.

Though the pandemic was an inevitable part of the hourlong discussion, it wasn’t the sole topic, as the candidates discussed traffic issues, housing costs and ways to help local business. Trump’s name was never mentioned, though Garcia echoed a favorite presidential talking point when he praised the 2017 tax cut as “the catalyst and the fuel that started this booming economy that is now the best economy, before the coronavirus, that this world has ever seen.”

Both candidates pledged to head to Washington as bipartisan problem-solvers; Smith noted she used to be a Republican at a time, she gibed, when the party’s lawmakers believed in balancing budgets. (“I’m one of those people who felt decades ago the party was leaving them and I just didn’t have a place there anymore,” Smith said in an interview, citing the GOP’s rightward shift on abortion, pay equity and environmental issues.)

The debate spawned one bit of controversy. Soon after, Smith apologized for seeming to make light of Garcia’s military service during a video chat with supporters. “OK, he’s got pictures of planes behind him,” she said of their respective Zoom backdrops. “I’ve got constitutional law books.”

Trump pounced. “Now she’s mocking our Great Vets!” he tweeted. “We need Navy Fighter Pilot Mike Garcia in #CA25!”

Smith quickly fired back. “Mr. President on behalf of Americans let me suggest some better uses of your time,” she wrote. “Plan & support a national testing program. Withdraw your court case to destroy [the Affordable Care Act]. Support [the World Health Organization] so that when world scientists find a cure we aren’t sidelined. Be a leader. #TrumpDepression.”

With the economy in free fall and deaths still rising from the coronavirus crisis, President Trump argued Friday that voters shouldn’t hold him responsible.

It may take several days for the results in the 25th District to be known, especially if the race is close. Ballots postmarked no later than Tuesday will be counted so long as they arrive at the election offices in Los Angeles and Ventura counties by the end of business Friday.

A Garcia victory would give beleaguered California Republicans a rare cause for cheer and deliver something Trump could crow about, though the GOP still faces steep odds taking back control of the House this fall.

Whatever the outcome, the two candidates will face each other again Nov. 3, when they will bid for a full two-year term beginning in January.

Democrats believe Smith will have the advantage in that contest, with a much larger turnout expected as voters cast their ballots in the presidential race. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried the district by nearly 7 percentage points. Two years later, Hill did even better, winning by more than 8 points.