Republican Garcia Has Early Lead in CA25 House Election
It had been a long time coming for former California Gov. Pete Wilson, and Tuesday night his words carried a mix of nostalgia, gratitude and delight.
“I’ve worked for many candidates, but never with greater enthusiasm than I’ve worked for this one,” the 86-year-old former GOP governor said on a celebratory conference call Tuesday night.
Less than two years ago, California Republicans were written off as a permanent minority party in the state after losing seven congressional seats in traditionally conservative enclaves such as Orange County and the San Joaquin Valley.
Tuesday night they appeared poised to flip a Democrat-held seat back to the Republican column for the first time since 1998, when Wilson was wrapping up his second term in office. This time the election comes amid a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders that turned normal campaign strategies and last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts upside down.
By Tuesday night, former Navy fighter pilot and Raytheon executive Mike Garcia had a sizable 12-point lead over Assemblywoman Christy Smith, 56% to 44%. Both had spent the past six months vying to replace former Rep. Katie Hill in a special election after Hill, a onetime Democratic rising star, resigned last October amid a sex scandal.
The race has garnered national attention, considered as both a bellwether for the political climate ahead of November and a glimpse of new campaign dynamics in the COVID-19 era.
California’s 25th Congressional District is an exurban district north of Los Angeles that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Two years later, Hill knocked off the incumbent GOP congressman, Steve Knight, by eight points amid a blue tidal wave that decimated the state’s Republican congressional delegation and handed Democrats control of the House.
Republicans tend to fare better in California in elections attracting fewer voters, but Garcia appears to have exceeded party expectations in a race that attracted record participation for a special election. Some 34% of registered voters returned their mail-in ballots, while just a smattering of voters turned up in person at a limited number of polling places.
In an unexpected twist, the all mail-in voting that Democrats across the state demanded and Republicans criticized appeared to benefit Garcia. Older Republican voters returned their ballots in much higher numbers than younger Democrats in the district.
“I won’t give a victory speech tonight, I’ll save that for tomorrow night, but things are looking very encouraging,” Garcia said on a conference call Tuesday night while thanking hundreds of campaign volunteers and staff. “Hopefully by tomorrow morning, we’ll have enough data to declare victory, but it is looking very good.”
Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, took to Twitter to do a little boasting and extrapolate the win as a positive sign for Republican odds in this fall’s general election.
“It’s been fun night, but only a prelude to November,” he tweeted.
Mail-in ballots postmarked Tuesday will still come in in the days ahead, but Dave Wasserman, the House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said if Garcia’s lead over Smith holds, “and chances look pretty good it will,” he will become the only House Republican from a district Hillary Clinton won with more than 50% of the vote.
Wasserman quickly cautioned that the victory could be short-lived because higher turnout in the general election, where Garcia and Smith will face off again, could help Democrats take the seat back.
A key to Garcia’s likely win this time, Wasserman noted, was high-propensity voters who are longtime district residents, skew older, whiter and more Republican. The district’s low-propensity voters are newcomers to the district who tend to be younger, non-white and Democratic.
“They showed up in ’16/’18, but less so this time,” he tweeted.
Late in the race, Democrats appeared to see the writing on the wall. Last week they started lowering expectations for the special election and looking ahead to November when voters will be weighing in on a presidential election and turnout could be twice as high.
Republicans, however, touted Garcia’s compelling personal story and fiscally conservative policies as key to his success. The son of a naturalized citizen, he attended the Naval Academy, graduating in the top 3% of his class, and went on to become a Navy pilot, serving in combat operations in the Middle East. He said he was running for Congress to “cut taxes, grow jobs and keep Sacramento policies from spreading to D.C.”
Smith cast herself a centrist Democrat with deep roots in the district, having served for nine years on the local school board and one term in the state Assembly. She too said she wanted to lower taxes for Californians while making health care more “affordable and available.”
But Smith stumbled late in the campaign when a video surfaced of her strangely mocking Garcia’s Navy career. Smith apologized, but it was a costly mistake in a district that is home to members of the military and several defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, which designed the U-2 spy plane and the F-35.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a California-based voter data company that tracks ballot returns, stressed that the unusual nature of the election taking place in middle of a pandemic and stay-at-home orders had the most impact on the outcome.
“Segments of the population who have more time on their hands and view getting mail as one of the most interesting parts in any given day during the pandemic voted in high numbers and skewed Republican,” he said.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the district, workers considered essential or inundated by working from home and caring for children, voted in much lower numbers, he said.
When all voters are more engaged heading into the fall, the outcome could be vastly different, he warned.
“This is an election that is ripe to be overlearned,” he said. “People will draw far too much from this election in a couple of different ways – in terms of how competitive this race is going into November and what we should expect in terms of converting to all vote by mail.”
Still, Mitchell said, he believed Tuesday’s results could show that Republicans are more fired up heading into the pivotal summer months of campaigning.
“What drives people to vote is usually either excitement, passion or anger. And right now, conservatives are feeling anger more than anybody. That might be an indicator.”