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Republican flips House seat in California special election

Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith on Wednesday conceded defeat in the special election in California’s 25th District after vote returns showed her opponent, Republican Mike Garcia, with a comfortable lead.

The concession flips a seat that Democrats reclaimed from GOP control less than two years ago. The special election was held on Tuesday to fill the seat vacated in November by former Rep. Katie HillKatherine (Katie) Lauren HillObamas to attend Biden inauguration Trump pardons George Papadopoulos in latest batch of pardons Former Rep. Katie Hill files lawsuit against ex-husband, Daily Mail over nude photos MORE (D-Cailf.), who resigned amid a House ethics investigation into an inappropriate relationship between herself and one of her congressional staffers.

Garcia’s apparent win is a major accomplishment for the GOP, marking the first time since 1998 that a Republican has flipped a Democratic-held House seat in California. Republicans also won a special House election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, in a race they were widely expected to win. 

"While it's critical that we ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor in the May 12 special election,” Smith said in a statement on Wednesday. “As such, I'd like to congratulate him.

"That said, this is only one step in this process, and I look forward to having a vigorous debate about the issues in the upcoming November 2020 election, from healthcare access to job creation, aid for working families, investments in local classrooms to wildfire protection, women's rights and more in the months ahead.”

California has not finalized the count in an election that was largely conducted by mail-in ballot, which needed to have been postmarked by Tuesday and must get to poll officials by Friday.

Even before voting ended on Tuesday, Democrats were lowering expectations in the special election, aware that the race was likely to end in a nail-biter. In recent days, early ballot returns showed that more registered Republican submitted ballots than registered Democrats as well, raising the GOP’s hopes of reclaiming the district.

Garcia declared victory in the race earlier on Wednesday, saying that returns that showed him leading Smith by double digits made it “clear that our message of lower taxes and ensuring we don’t take liberal Sacramento dysfunction to Washington prevailed.

“For too long, the people of our district have not had representation, and it’s time their voice is heard in Washington. These are difficult times, and too much is at stake — our small businesses, our workers and our families need all the help they can get.”

The special election was only held to determine who would serve out the rest of Hill’s first term. Garcia and Smith are expected to face off once again in the November general election.

Still, Republicans touted Garcia’s victory Wednesday as a sign that they have momentum in the suburban and exurban districts that helped hand Democrats the House majority in 2018.

In a memo shared with reporters Wednesday by the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), the main House Republican super PAC, pointed to the win in California’s 25th District and a victory in last year’s special election in North Carolina’s 9th District to tout the party’s strength in the suburbs.

“With wins in the suburbs of Charlotte and Los Angeles, Republicans have proven we can win in key suburban districts with the right candidate, message, campaign and funding,” wrote Dan Conston, the president of CLF.

Hill won the seat during the 2018 midterm elections, which saw Democrats recapture control of the House. The district was previously represented by former Rep. Stephen KnightStephen Thomas KnightCivil rights activist Dolores Huerta endorses California Democratic House challenger The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The American Investment Council - Trump takes his 'ready to reopen' mantra on the road Republican flips House seat in California special election MORE (R-Calif.).

Hill’s victory marked the first time in more than two decades that a Democrat won in the district.

The controversy surrounding Hill’s resignation — and Democrats’ larger hold on political power in California — were central to Garcia’s campaign. He frequently railed against “socialist” policies and strict regulations that he blamed for broader economic problems in the state.

For her part, Smith sought to tie Garcia closely to President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which loomed large over the race. Garcia’s victory boosts Republicans’ hopes of recapturing some of the suburban and exurban House seats they lost in 2018.

Democrats believe they have a better chance at winning in California’s 25th District in the fall when the presidential election is expected to drive up voter turnout and Trump himself will be at the top of the ballot.

“Christy Smith’s decades of service and longstanding fight to ensure affordable and accessible health care make her the best choice to represent Southern California during these challenging times,” Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosFive centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker AOC v. Pelosi: Round 12? MORE (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. 

“Even the [National Republican Congressional Committee] admits Republicans are in trouble for November,” she added. “We’re confident that voters will reject Mike Garcia's attacks on their health care and that Democrats will retake this seat in November.”

Updated at 5:40 p.m.