In more than a handful of swing districts, Democrats nominated first-time candidates such as Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Jason Crow (Colo.), who, respectively, served as a Navy helicopter pilot and an Army Ranger. They went on to win GOP-held seats and helped propel Democrats to the majority in the 2018 midterm elections.
Garcia entered Tuesday’s special election for this swing district a slight favorite over Christy Smith, a member of the state legislature who has run for multiple offices. Polls did not close until 11 p.m. Eastern time, and strategists on both sides expect the count to last several days before a winner is declared because California law allows votes sent by mail Tuesday to be counted if received by Friday.
Garcia has painted his rival as a political veteran, and outside GOP groups call her “Sacramento politician Christy Smith” at the start of every ad.
“Career politician Christy Smith did nothing,” the narrator says in one ad for the Garcia campaign, accusing her of doing little while in the state legislature. “While we suffered, she did nothing, nothing.”
It ends with Garcia approving of the ad as it cuts to a picture of him holding a toddler on a tarmac, an F/A-18 strike fighter aircraft in the background.
Garcia’s rise demonstrates that some recent trends in congressional politics continue even in the time of a coronavirus pandemic that has cratered the economy.
According to strategists in both parties, voters are still looking to elect a new breed of lawmaker, searching for results-driven candidates with interesting backgrounds and no previous experience in a legislative body.
That stands in contrast to the presidential campaign, in which Joe Biden used his 44 years of combined experience as a senator and vice president to emerge from a crowded field of Democrats, touting himself as the steady hand for these very unsure times.
But when it comes to Capitol Hill, voters appear to still want to shake things up, making candidates like Garcia, Sherrill and Crow such key recruits for their respective campaign committees.
Also, Smith’s campaign shows the limitations of trying to tie first-time candidates to President Trump and his more outlandish statements or claims.
In a more aggressive fashion than Democrats in 2018, Smith has tried to turn Garcia into a Trump clone, particularly with the administration’s uneven handling of the health and economic crises.
“I absolutely do support the president; I always have,” Garcia says in one of Smith’s ads, over a montage of news clips showing Trump boasting about his handling of the pandemic while the death toll skyrocketed. “I think Trump is a good president, yeah, I support the president.”
Trump is not popular in a district where Hillary Clinton defeated him by seven percentage points in 2016, followed in 2018 by first-time candidate Katie Hill’s even larger victory over the GOP incumbent, Steve Knight.
Following Hill’s resignation in the wake of an inappropriate relationship with a campaign aide, Garcia finished second behind Smith in the all-party initial ballot in early March, finishing well ahead of Knight, a career politician whose father also represented the region in Sacramento.
Although he publicly supports Trump, Garcia has focused more on standard conservative issues such as cutting taxes — and with no voting record in office, he became harder to hit on issues.
In 2018, those first-time candidates fielded by Democrats had an easier time ducking accusations that they were too liberal or too close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and they found success in focusing their attacks on GOP incumbents for their votes on health care and other kitchen-table issues, steering clear of Trump scandals.
Like many of the 2018 Democrats, Garcia was essentially a self recruit. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had long-standing ties to Knight and, instead, Republicans lucked into having a more interesting candidate.
But Trump may have created a last-minute headache for Garcia by injecting himself into the race with tweets over the weekend accusing Democrats of trying to steal the election by adding an additional in-person voting site.
Democrats were hopeful that Trump’s intervention in the race would galvanize more liberal voters who have taken a passive view of the race.
Democrats privately acknowledge Garcia has run a better campaign, but they also say that Republicans have not recruited enough similar candidates to truly put the House majority in play. And even where they do have good recruits, Republicans face a cash shortage that will make their campaigns difficult to launch.
Republicans consider Wesley Hunt their prototype for the future: an African-American who attended the U.S. Military Academy and went on to fly Apache helicopters in the Army, before returning home to the Houston suburbs.
But Hunt had to first fight through a GOP primary and emerged with less than $500,000 left in his campaign coffers, compared with more than $2.6 million held by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Tex.).
Dave Wasserman, the House race analyst for the independent Cook Political Report, calculated the fundraising for 55 races initially targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, finding Democrats hold an average 6-to-1 advantage in cash.
In a strange twist, Garcia and Smith have already won their party’s nomination for the regularly scheduled general election in November, so they will face off again regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.
Which is why neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor the National Republican Congressional Committee will spend any time criticizing their candidate, if they lose, because they have to keep working with the candidate for another six months.
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, Republicans expect to continue hitting that same theme throughout the fall, labeling Smith as a career politician.
“During these frightening times, we can’t trust Sacramento politician Christy Smith,” the narrator says at the close of one NRCC ad currently on air.
Democrats, however, anticipate the larger pool of voters in November will boost Smith’s chances there and, with more time to plan, expect the campaign themes to focus more on those that boosted so many of their candidates in 2018.
They expect it to look a lot more like one DCCC ad currently running.
“More than ever, we need a leader who will put our health and safety first, but Mike Garcia would let insurance companies deny coverage for preexisting conditions and hike up costs for lifesaving drugs,” the narrator says.