California Republicans may be on the verge of something they haven’t done in more than two decades: capturing a congressional seat from Democrats in the nation’s most populous state.
Tuesday’s special election runoff in the Los Angeles suburbs, which is taking place because of former Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation last year, has Democrats bracing for defeat in a district they flipped by 9 points in the 2018 midterms. Armed with a highly touted recruit and an older, less diverse electorate than in general elections, Republicans feel they are on the verge of an upset.
Private polls show the race in the state’s 25th District is within just a few points, and Democrats are already downplaying expectations for their nominee, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, citing depressed turnout in the midst of a pandemic and the negative impact of the scandal surrounding Hill, who resigned amid allegations that she had inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers.
Their battle plan: Hope for the best next week, then try again in six months in the rematch, when Democrats expect their voters will show up with the presidential election on the ballot.
“We don’t underestimate how much of a Republican-leaning district this could be in May, but that will be a different electorate in November,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said, noting that the winner will serve only a limited time in Congress. “We don’t get in this to lose a race, but I do think that in November, Christy will be successful.”
Yet a victory by Republican Mike Garcia, a 44-year-old former Naval aviator and defense contractor, would provide a jolt of energy to the GOP’s efforts to reclaim some of its lost suburban territory — even as the party’s chances of recapturing the House majority appear to be dwindling.
The close race is remarkable, in part, because voters in the district, which spans the northern Los Angeles suburbs, backed Hillary Clinton by 7 points two years prior. And President Donald Trump is still highly unpopular there; one Democratic survey found his favorability ratings underwater by double digits. Those same conditions could be present in several key seats that Republicans hope to flip back.
“It is not a unique district. It is similar to many of the districts that we won in the fall,” said one Democratic consultant who works on House races. “This was an anti-Trump response district, and if we’re ebbing in those districts we need to find out why. We can’t just brush it off.”
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the election will be conducted almost entirely by mail, and ballot return tallies thus far — ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday in order to be counted — have only contributed to Democrats’ fears.
The electorate so far is older, less diverse and more likely to favor the GOP. Of more than 118,000 returned ballots counted as of Friday, 44 percent are from registered Republicans, and just 36 percent are from Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan company that analyzes voter data.
“Look at the age breakdown,” Mitchell said in an interview, pointing to turnout rates that showed that 15 percent of voters under 35 years old have returned their ballots thus far, compared to 49 percent of those 65 and older. “That’s a big deal. The Latino population is pretty significant here,” he added, “but they’re turning out at half the rate of white voters.”
Privately, Democrats are pessimistic about their odds. The DCCC has spent over $1 million on TV ads boosting Smith after the March 3 primary, but the cavalry of outside groups that typically drop millions in special elections has largely sat out the race.
Both House Majority PAC and EMILY’s List, which endorsed Smith, concluded the May electorate skewed too heavily toward Republicans and the cost of running ads in the pricey Los Angeles market was too high to justify a major investment when the winner would serve for only a few months before facing voters again, according to sources with knowledge of their spending decisions.
Democrats maintain that the GOP advantage will evaporate in November, when turnout will return to normal levels. Democrats have a voter registration advantage of nearly 30,000 in the district.
“I think that’s why a lot of groups are kind of pushing the pause button,” said Aguilar, who co-chairs the DCCC’s program for top offensive targets. “And I think it’s a realization that the dynamics in this race in November are going to just be very different and lean our way significantly.”
Yet some worry a Republican victory in the suburbs could set a concerning narrative, spur a surge in donations and energy in other Clinton-won districts that the GOP needs if they have any chance of taking back the House. Plus, Garcia could get a boost from his win, offering him a limited power of incumbency and a solid fundraising perch.
“I mean, it wouldn’t be good,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said of a potential loss on Tuesday. “This is the only election, and this is a seat we won. So any time you lose a seat that’s concerning. You don’t take that for granted.”
But Bass said she believes Smith will win and predicted that polls trying to gauge an all-mail election during a global crisis were portraying the race to be closer than it is.
In an interview, Smith, a 50-year-old former school board member who flipped a red state Assembly seat in 2018, said she understood the need to allocate resources wisely and conceded her path to victory would be easier in November. But she also framed this election in dire terms.
“The reason I’m running is because my constituents can’t afford to wait, especially in this Covid recovery moment,” she said. “We need a seat at the table for all of these decisions that are going to be made and someone who is there stridently fighting for what our community needs.”
The race will be the first substantive test of how the pandemic affects federal elections. Both Smith and Garcia have been forced to wage largely virtual campaigns from their homes.
Garcia is running heavily on his bio as a former Naval aviator who returned to the district to work for Raytheon, a defense contractor.
He landed a Twitter endorsement from Trump but is also hoping to pick up independents turned off by the president. He has avoided many recent requests for media interviews, including for this story. And Democrats complain that has allowed him to avoid taking positions on key issues, including the administration’s Covid-19 response.
Democrats dominate the congressional delegation in California, holding 46 of the state’s 53 seats after netting 7 seats in 2018, including the 25th District. Republicans haven’t flipped a House seat in California since 1998, when the GOP won two open seats that were held by Democrats.
After Hill resigned from the seat last fall, former Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) announced a comeback bid. The DCCC and HMP, eager to face a foe they had easily dispatched, spent over $1 million to try and knock him into the runoff with Smith. But Knight (17 percent) finished a distant third place behind Smith (36 percent) and Garcia (25 percent) in the all-party election.
Privately, some Democrats have questioned the efficacy of expending precious resources trying to choose Smith’s opponent in the runoff.
Republicans have hammered Smith as a “Sacramento politician” with a weak track record on education. And they seized on a gaffe she made on a livestream in which she appeared to mock Garcia’s time in the Navy. (She has since apologized.)
“Christy Smith is a horribly flawed candidate who spit in the face of Mike Garcia’s military service and the public school teachers she voted to fire,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said in a statement. “These issues are going to sink her campaign next Tuesday, and they will keep her sunk in November.”
Democratic strategists believe the fall election will be more of a referendum on the president, and that the shadow of Hill’s resignation will have subsided. Private Democratic polling from December found Hill’s unfavorable rating exceeded her favorable rating by double digits, according to a source familiar with the survey.
Hill waded into the race in April with her new PAC, cutting a direct-to-camera TV ad aimed at juicing Democratic turnout. Her $200,000 expenditure caught the DCCC by surprise, according to a source familiar with spending in the race.
In an interview late last month, Hill said she believed she was still popular with Democrats in the district and hoped her familiar face would boost turnout among her party’s low-propensity voters.
“I was hoping that the race would be much easier to win, right?” she said. “And we want to be smart about how we spend the money. Do you spend it now, or do you spend it in November?”