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 HillGaetz tweets photo of teenage adopted son after hearing battle The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The American Investment Council - Trump takes his 'ready to reopen' mantra on the road The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrat concedes in California House race 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 KnightThe 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 'I'll drop your a--,' Republican tells immigration protester 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 John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' 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 BustosTime for a Democratic reckoning on race  Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push GOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts 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.