Democrats on edge over California special election nail-biter

Democrats are fearful that their grasp on a House seat in California they flipped less than two years ago may be slipping.

The party is scrambling to hold onto California’s 25th District in a special election set for Tuesday, when their candidate, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, will face off against Republican Mike Garcia for the seat previously held by former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who resigned last year amid a House ethics investigation into an inappropriate relationship between her and one of her staffers.

Public polling in the race has been scarce in recent weeks, though privately, Democrats acknowledge that it’s likely to be a nail-biter, and election handicappers have marked the contest as a toss-up. If Garcia defeats Smith on Tuesday, it will mark the first time a Republican has flipped a House seat in California since 1998.

Hill won a 9-point victory over one-term Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) in the 2018 midterm elections, flipping the last remaining GOP-held House seat based in Los Angeles County. Her victory was part of a series of wins by Democrats in longtime Republican strongholds in California, including in Orange County and the Central Valley.

The special election will decide who serves out the rest of Hill’s term, which expires next January, and a rematch between Smith and Garcia in November is almost certain. But a win by Garcia on Tuesday would likely be seen by Republicans as a sign that their fortunes in the suburban and exurban areas they lost in the 2018 midterm elections may be turning around.

“Obviously, if the Republicans were to win it they would feel really good about it, and they should,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It would represent a bounce back of sorts.”

But Kondik noted that special elections “are hard to project forward,” and even if the GOP is able to recapture California’s 25th District on Tuesday, the party will face a tougher playing field in November, when the presidential election is expected to drive up voter turnout.

Democrats have a roughly 28,000-person advantage over Republicans in voter registration in the district, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. And Hillary Clinton beat President Trump there in 2016 by nearly 7 points. Taken together, those two factors could portend higher turnout for Democrats come the November general election.

“It’s a different turnout model, and that’s not just because of the pandemic but special elections just don’t have the turnout that a presidential election would,” he said.

The election is being conducted almost entirely by mail, and ballot returns last week heavily favored Republicans. As of last Thursday, roughly 45 percent of the 108,000 ballots returned came from registered Republicans, while about 35 percent came from Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, the vice president of the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.

Smith acknowledged the challenge in overcoming Republicans’ advantage in early ballot returns on Sunday.

“The reality in special elections for Democrats has always been trying to figure out what motivates our voters to vote as consistently and as early as Republican voters do,” she said during an interview on MSNBC on Sunday.

One Democratic operative involved in the race acknowledged that Smith is “down at this point” in early ballot returns, but said that she has seen “the gap close” in recent days, noting that Republicans often hold the advantage in early vote returns while the Democratic vote tends to break later.

The race has taken on a distinctly national tone amid the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats are hoping to cast the election as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the outbreak, and Smith’s campaign has sought to tie Garcia closely to the president, especially in its closing argument ahead of Tuesday.

“Mike Garcia has made it clear from the start that he is in lockstep with Donald Trump and will put Trump’s needs before the district, leaving CA-25 residents to ‘fend for themselves,’ ” Smith’s deputy campaign manager and communications director Kunal Atit said in a statement to The Hill.

Smith has won the endorsements of several prominent Democrats, including Clinton and, more recently, former President Obama.

Trump has waded into the race in recent days as well, endorsing Garcia in a string of tweets over the weekend and accusing Democrats on Monday of “trying to steal the Mike Garcia Congressional Race in California.” Trump’s remarks came in response to a decision by the Los Angeles County supervisor of elections to add an in-person voting site in Lancaster after the city’s Republican mayor requested one.

For his part, Garcia has seized on his experience in the military — he’s a former Navy pilot — and has cast the election as a referendum on the Democratic Party’s dominance in California, where Democrats hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the state legislature.

“I’ve seen the disastrous tax hikes and socialist-style policies coming out of Sacramento and we absolutely cannot let that take hold in Washington,” Garcia wrote in an op-ed for The Santa Clarita Valley Signal earlier this month. “The last year and a half has been an embarrassment for our district and it’s time we restore integrity to our representation in our nation’s capitol.”

Smith has also faced negative headlines in recent weeks after she appeared to mock Garcia’s emphasis on his military experience during a video call with supporters. She has since apologized for her remarks.

It may be days before a winner is decided in the race. Mail-in ballots need only be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted. The final day for election officials to receive ballots is Friday.

If Republicans manage to flip the House seat on Tuesday, Democrats will have one more shot at winning it back in November, when Trump himself will be on a ballot and Democratic voters are expected to turn out in force. Smith signaled during her MSNBC interview on Sunday that she still has the November general election in her sights.

“We’ll go at it again in November if we’re not successful,” Smith said. “We’re still very, very hopeful about the results for Tuesday though.”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Katie Hill Paul Mitchell Steve Knight

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