California, during a pandemic, would be an unlikely place and time for a GOP upset. After all, Republicans haven't picked up a seat in the state since 1998 and most voters aren't enamored with President Trump's handling of the crisis. In fact, Trump's approval rating has barely budged since November 2018, when Democrat Katie Hill ousted GOP Rep. Steve Knight by seven points in California's 25th district.
But a month out from the May 12 all vote-by-mail special election to replace Hill, both parties view the race between Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith and Republican former Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia as a nailbiter.
This is a rare case in which both parties ended up with solid, impressive candidates who are straight out of central casting for the district. The 25th CD takes in northern Los Angeles County, including Santa Clarita, and has recently trended blue: four years after voting for Mitt Romney, it voted for Hillary Clinton 50 percent to 43 percent and registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans 38 percent to 32 percent.
To put Garcia's challenge in perspective, Republicans don't hold a single House seat in the country where Clinton received an absolute majority of the vote. But the 25th CD, with its reputation as a bedroom community for police and firefighters, has an independent streak and a considerable defense/aerospace industry. And so far, Garcia's biography appears to be resonating beyond the GOP base.
Garcia, whose father emigrated from Mexico (this district is 38 percent Latino), was nominated to the Naval Academy by longtime former GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee and remains popular in the 25th CD. As a Super Hornet Strike Fighter pilot, he flew 30 combat missions in Iraq and later served ten years back home as an executive at Raytheon.
Smith also has an ideal profile for these swing suburbs: the Santa Clarita resident, former Department of Education analyst and PTA mom rose to president of the Newhall School District before raising $2 million in 2018 to flip a GOP-held Assembly seat. Smith strikes a pragmatic tone, emphasizing her work on charter school accountability and public safety, and entered the race with Hill's strong backing.
However, unlike Hill in 2018 or Garcia now, Smith isn't a first-time candidate and has a Sacramento record to attack. And unlike Hill, who outspent Knight $8.4 million to $2.5 million in 2018, Smith won't have a massive spending advantage. As of mid-February, as most GOP House candidates badly lagged in fundraising, Garcia narrowly led Smith $1.2 million to $1.1 million raised, owing to a much earlier start.
Besides Garcia's uniquely strong biography and financial competitiveness, there are three reasons both the DCCC and NRCC are spending heavily, and the race is up for grabs despite California's leftward drift and Trump's low approval.
First, the March 3 all-party primary was a wake-up call. Even with a competitive Democratic presidential primary driving turnout, the five Democrats on the special election ballot only combined for 51 percent of the vote, while five Republicans accounted for 49 percent. In the 25th CD primary for the November race for the full term, six Republicans actually outpolled six Democrats 50 percent to 49 percent.
There's reason to believe a lower-turnout, stand-alone special election could further add to Garcia's opportunity on May 12. The district only cast about 157,000 primary votes on March 3, compared to 245,000 when Hill won in 2018 and 274,000 in 2016, when Clinton carried the 25th CD. Lower-propensity voters in these fast-growing suburbs tend to skew non-white and friendlier to Democrats.
Second, the COVID-19 outbreak adds a lot of uncertainty. On the one hand, all 420,928 voters will automatically receive ballots in the mail, and voters stuck at home may have little else to do but fill them out and send them in. Smith's campaign points to recent mayoral elections as evidence all vote-by-mail elections could actually boost turnout, producing a more diverse, Democratic electorate.
On the other hand, the mandatory stay-at-home order quashes campaign field organizers' ability to "harvest" ballots at doors and turn them in, a practice made legal by a state law change after 2016 and that some Republicans blamed for close losses in 2018. It's impossible to quantify the impact that had in the midterms, but a smaller turnout that skews towards white and longtime voters would help Garcia.
Third, Republicans believe they have an effective attack on Smith, who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. They contend that Smith skipped a committee hearing scheduled for March 4, the day after the primary and the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. The most recent meeting's agenda discussed wildfires, with no mention of Coronavirus.
Smith calls the attack frivolous and maintains that she's been urgently focused on getting PPE to frontline workers and helping small businesses acquire bridge loans instead of holding lengthy hearings. But simultaneously playing up her emergency management credentials and explaining that her committee's role is only to look at crises retroactively might seem curious to voters at a time the virus is all-consuming.
The DCCC is putting virtually all its chips on healthcare. A new ad warns, "Mike Garcia would let insurance companies deny coverage for preexisting conditions and hike up costs for life-saving drugs," referring to a clip of Garcia telling a local radio show last summer that he'd like to get Obamacare "off the books" and start from scratch. But unlike Knight, Garcia never actually voted for the unpopular GOP healthcare bill.
A mid-March poll taken by GOP firm 1892 Polling found Garcia leading Smith 43 percent to 39 percent, with 10 percent undecided. Democrats haven't put out their own poll to counter and privately acknowledge the race is within the margin of error. One Republican operative optimistically observes that even as Trump's numbers have soured on Coronavirus, Garcia's strong position has held firm.
Ultimately, the district's fundamentals should help Smith, and a Garcia win should still be considered an upset. Even if Garcia were to narrowly win, Republicans wouldn't be able to count it as a firm step towards the majority, because he could easily lose a higher-turnout, guaranteed rematch against Smith in November. But the May 12 special election moves from the Lean Democratic to the Toss Up column.