Seven months later, Democrats are at risk of losing the seat.
A special election on May 12 will determine whether Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith or Republican businessman Mike Garcia finishes Hill’s term this year. In November, voters will be asked to choose between the same two candidates to represent the district for a two-year term, a contest for which Democrats say they have a better shot at winning.
The inland district encompassing the exurbs of Los Angeles County is one of 39 seats Democrats flipped in 2018, giving them the House majority. To underscore the special election’s importance, both President Trump and Hillary Clinton have weighed in on the race on Twitter, and former president Barack Obama endorsed Smith on Tuesday.
The election presents Republicans with a chance to claw back the red-turned-blue suburban seats they lost in 2018, districts crucial to any hope of the GOP reclaiming the House majority in November. The race also gives Republicans an opportunity to reverse their fortunes in heavily Democratic California, where the GOP holds just six of 53 House seats.
Further complicating the election is the novel coronavirus outbreak. There’s no playbook to predict how voters will act in the midst of a global pandemic. Candidates are relying on virtual meetups to introduce themselves to constituents.
Because of stay-at-home orders, only a limited number of polling places will be open on Election Day, so voters must return mail-in ballots. The state tried to ease the burden by mailing every voter a pre-stamped ballot they simply need to fill out and send back.
“We’re trying to run a campaign at the height of the crisis when it is hard to get people’s attention because people are so distracted by the crisis,” Smith said in a recent interview. “We’re hopeful for the best and that the turnout breaks in our favor.”
Almost 1 in 4 voters has cast ballots, a turnout that is “pretty enormous” for a special election, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a California-based bipartisan voter data company that tracks ballot returns.
“It simply could be that people are sitting at home and bored. Voting is a little easier when you’re not having to deal with those regular life issues,” Mitchell said. “We’re in this environment that the most exciting thing to do every day is check the mail.”
The ballots returned so far seem to favor Garcia. As of this week, 32 percent of registered Republicans, 20 percent of registered Democrats and 15 percent of registered independents had voted, according to Mitchell’s data.
Democrats are setting expectations low for the special election, citing the historically low turnout by their voters in these one-off contests, and setting their sights on November when the presidency will be decided.
“May is going to be harder than November will be,” said a national Democrat with knowledge of the race who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “We think the candidate is going to get better and it’s going to be a much better election, but we are realistic about what May is going to look like.”
Smith is pitching herself as a moderate Democrat with deep roots in the district and a history of public service after nine years on a local school board and a term in the state legislature, someone who will fight for a “robust social safety net.”
Garcia says he’s a fiscally conservative D.C. outsider who, as a former Navy pilot, has traveled the world and now wants to serve in Congress “to cut taxes, grow jobs, and keep Sacramento policies from spreading to DC.”
Garcia’s campaign declined several requests for an interview with the candidate.
The latest trouble for Democrats occurred last week when a leaked video of a Smith virtual town hall showed her mocking her opponent’s focus on his military résumé. It was a misstep in a district that includes Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in Palmdale that designed the U-2 spy plane and the F-35; other major defense contractors; and military bases.
Smith apologized. “Without question I have the deepest respect for Mike Garcia’s service to our country and I’m sorry for comments that I made that might suggest otherwise,” she said in a statement.
But the National Republican Congressional Committee called it “disgusting,” and Trump weighed in, writing on Twitter: “Vote @MikeGarcia2020 by May 12th! His opponent @ChristyforCA25 . . . Now she’s mocking our Great Vets! We need Navy Fighter Pilot Mike Garcia in #CA25!”
Smith hit back in a series of replies to the president’s tweet: “Now that you’re paying attention to #CA25 Mr. President, a few questions: Where are the tests? Where’s the supply chain help? Why aren’t you taking any responsibility? Where’s $ support for nursing homes and hospitals? Why aren’t you talking about protecting farm workers?”
The Democrats intend to emphasize Garcia’s embrace of Trump, especially as it pertains to the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In another tweet in response to the president, Smith referred to her opponent as a “mini version of Trump.”
“In a hyperpartisan presidential election year, Christy Smith being identified as a Democrat is going to be enough for a lot of people,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant who ran former senator Barbara Boxer’s campaigns. But, she added, “Mike Garcia has the dream profile for the current Republican Party leadership. For decades, they’ve been trying to recruit veterans, small-business people who had the personal talents to be effective campaigners.”
Garcia is also a Latino with immigrant parents at a time when Republicans are desperate to blunt Democrats’ advantage in minority communities, especially in a district that is 38 percent Latino.
The state holds a top-two primary — all candidates regardless of party are on the same ballot. If no one breaks 50 percent, the top two vote-getters face off. In that race on March 3, Smith won 36 percent to Garcia’s 25 percent.
The district, which stretches from the rural farmlands in Lancaster to the populous city of Santa Clarita, was held by a Republican for 26 years. For almost all of that time, it was Buck McKeon who would ascend to chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He won his last election in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote. After he retired, Steve Knight won the next two elections until Hill unseated him in 2018, beating him by eight percentage points.
Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in California, says the district had been trending blue before Hill’s decisive victory. Clinton beat Trump by seven points in 2016. The Democrats have a voter registration advantage. And, like other areas surrounding major metropolises, its demographics have shifted. It’s a minority-majority district, meaning there are more minority residents than whites.
“There’s no metric you can come up with other than Republican wishful thinking to suggest this is somehow a Republican seat or a Republican-leaning seat, or that Mike Garcia has an advantage over Christy Smith,” South said.
But, said Kapolczynski, in “a special election, the normal partisan dynamics don’t apply. Typically, turnout is very low, and that means the electorate is older, whiter and more conservative in California.”
Smith’s challenge, she said, will be convincing “occasional voters” to turn in their ballots even though it’s the only race to vote on. If those voters participate in primaries, it’s in a presidential year, and they already did that on March 3.
National Democrats had hoped Smith would win outright in March and avoid a situation where they’d potentially lose the seat for the remainder of the year and have to go into November running against the incumbent.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent $1.7 million on the race, says on its website of Smith: “Christy still has considerable room to grow with women and Latinos.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $1.2 million, and outside groups have weighed in, with $1.7 million attacking Smith and $502,000 in opposition to Garcia.
Rob Stutzman, a California GOP consultant, said he didn’t believe a Garcia win in May would be indicative of what will happen in November, but he acknowledged that as a congressman, Garcia would have the advantage of immediately doing constituent work when people are looking to government for help.
Smith, as a state assemblywoman, has tried to focus on that work, with her campaign staff trying to connect voters to her office if they need services.
“When we’re reaching out to our voters, it’s an opportunity to check on them,” she said. “Are you with us, can you vote, but also how are you?