You’ve probably never heard of Mike Garcia. But you will if the former Navy fighter pilot, a Republican, wins Tuesday’s special election in California’s 25th Congressional District, as many experts now think possible.

Many political experts discounted this possibility when Katie Hill, a Democrat, resigned from the seat last October due to a revenge porn scandal. They noted that the seat gave Hillary Clinton a majority of the vote against Donald Trump and that Hill had just knocked off an incumbent congressman, Steve Knight, by over eight points. The conventional wisdom said that this exurban district was just like other suburban seats that had swung to the Democrats in the Trump era.

But that was always looking at the seat through blue-tinted glasses. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) carried the district by only two points even though he swept the state by 23 percent. Two state assembly seats that cover almost all of the congressional seat were close affairs; a Democrat won the 38th district by three points while a Republican ran nearly even in the portions of the 36th district that are also in the congressional district. The underlying partisan trend, then, was much more favorable to the right type of Republican than would appear at first glance.

Garcia might just be that right type. This is his first bid for public office, so he can run without a voting record weighing him down. His campaign ads have struck typical conservative themes of protecting freedom and restraining government, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has pummeled the Democratic nominee, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, as a “Sacramento politician” who is wrong on taxes and education. Garcia is also Hispanic, something that could help in a seat where 31 percent of the citizens of voting age are Latino.

Smith has struck back with an attack ad of her own tying Garcia to President Trump. But sometimes what a candidate does is more important than what she says. Smith has rolled out endorsements from former president Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in just the past 10 days. Los Angeles County also added an in-person polling site in Lancaster, a large city that gave Newsom more than 55 percent of the vote in 2018, just last week. This earned a Twitter rebuke from Trump accusing Democrats of trying to steal the election.

Democrats aren’t trying to steal the election, but they are worried they could lose it because of low turnout by the younger and minority voters in their coalition. The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman reported that registered Republicans significantly outnumbered registered Democrats among ballots returned as of last Thursday. Smith’s high-profile endorsements and the addition of the Lancaster polling booth were presumably designed to increase Democratic turnout. Lancaster is home to a sizable black community, making the new in-person site particularly important for Smith’s hopes. Even Hill got into the act by spending $200,000 on her own television ad urging people to vote in the special election. The ad is being targeted digitally to people who don’t have a consistent pattern of voting and those who are newly registered.

Turnout, however, is often used as an excuse by losing campaigns unwilling to look at harsher facts. More than 118,000 ballots had already been returned by last week with nearly one week until Election Day. Only 245,000 votes were cast here in the high-turnout 2018 general election. It’s likely that total turnout comes much closer to that mark than observers currently suspect.

Garcia won’t be in the clear even if he does win. He will face Smith again in the November general election when turnout will likely be sky-high. If he prevails by a narrow margin in this race, that turnout difference could help Smith turn the tables in the fall. But if he wins both races, the sky could be the limit for the pilot turned politician.

More important, a strong showing by Garcia would be good news for Republicans generally. Hill won by 8.8 points in 2018, nearly identical to the Democrats’ nationwide 8.6-point margin in the popular vote. National generic ballot polls currently show Democrats leading by 7.7 points, not enough of a difference from 2018 to suggest this seat should be competitive. If Garcia wins or even makes it close on reasonably high turnout, Republicans could have a better shot to gain seats in the fall than pundits think.

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