California has not seen a congressional seat flip from blue to red in more than two decades, but state and national Republican officials say they are well-positioned to do so in Tuesday's special election.
Democrats have scrambled to retain control of the state's highly contested 25th Congressional District after former representative Katie Hill resigned in November 2019 amid a salacious scandal involving a "throuple" and allegations of workplace sexual misconduct.
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Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 30,000, Democratic state assemblywoman Christy Smith now trails Republican former Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia. Smith told supporters on Thursday that Republicans "have outpaced us in this moment by about 10,000 ballots," a reference to early voting data showing that just 25 percent of registered Democrats have returned mail-in ballots, compared with nearly 40 percent of Republicans.
"The best measure of how Republicans are doing right now is Christy Smith's own statements," one GOP operative with knowledge of the race said.
Republicans held the suburban seat for more than 25 years before Hill's 9-point defeat of former GOP incumbent Steve Knight in 2018. National Democrats expected the freshman congresswoman to cruise to reelection, but Hill's "throuple" relationship with a campaign staffer and the coronavirus pandemic have tightened the race. Heavy hitters in the Democratic Party are now rushing to influence the election. Former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton endorsed Smith in early May as internal polling and returned mail-in ballots showed Smith trailing Garcia by thousands of votes.
"The Obama and Clinton endorsements show how much Smith is struggling right now," the operative said. "They came about three weeks after ballots had already been mailed in the district and after many voters had returned those ballots."
Both parties are looking to the district as a bellwether for both the presidential election and contentious House races after Democrats flipped 37 suburban seats in 2018. The Southern California district was a prime example of the GOP's suburban struggles under President Donald Trump, who lost to Clinton by 7 points in the district in 2016. A Garcia win would mark the first time since 1998 that a California Republican successfully won a seat held by a Democrat. More important for national party officials, it could point to a path for success in November.
"What will this result tell us about the ability of campaigns to get out their vote in these kinds of conditions? It's not exactly going to be the same in November, but it's clear that this virus is going to be with us for a while," California State University, Northridge political scientist Larry Becker said. "Looking at how voters respond to the virus in terms of those who choose the mail-ballot as opposed to in-person voting, that's an important question that has implications beyond this district and beyond California in the fall."
The race's reliance on vote-by-mail has highlighted Garcia's pre-election day advantage—but not without controversy. Los Angeles County officials on Friday announced the opening of a new voting center for the election in Lancaster, a city that has trended increasingly Democratic in recent years. While Lancaster was not included in the original nine voting centers planned by the county, a voting center in nearby Palmdale was scheduled to open nine miles away. The decision to open a new location just days before the election came after pressure from Smith's struggling campaign, with spokesman Kunal Atit calling on county officials to "review and rectify this oversight" in a Tuesday statement. California GOP chairwoman Jessica Patterson questioned the timing of the decision, saying it should not have been made so close to Election Day.
"Voting centers were put into place well over a month ago," Patterson said. "If there was a problem with not opening a voting center in Lancaster, that could have been addressed a month ago."
Becker said that while he expects Garcia's apparent lead to tighten on Election Day, the coronavirus pandemic makes it nearly impossible to predict whether a late surge from Smith would be enough.
"I'm sure that Democrats will close the gap to some extent in terms of returned ballots by Democratic voters," he said. "The question is, will it be enough, how many people are mailing their ballots in really late, how many people are intending to vote in person—we just don't know because there are so many things that are unusual in this situation that it's hard to extrapolate from anything we've seen before."
Trump took to Twitter following the announcement of the Lancaster voting center, calling the election "rigged" and accusing California Democrats of "trying to steal it from Mike Garcia." His fixation on the race highlights the abundance of national attention surrounding it—in addition to Trump, Garcia has received endorsements from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas), and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Smith, meanwhile, has racked up endorsements from Obama, Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), and Sens. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.).
Hill has also endorsed Smith. The disgraced congresswoman cut a TV ad in late April urging Democrats to turn out for the election. The decision reportedly surprised national Democratic operatives and may backfire—a private December poll showed that Hill's unfavorable rating topped her favorable rating in the district by double digits, according to Politico.
Both candidates have used their expanding national profiles to boast impressive fundraising hauls. As of late April, both Smith and Garcia have raised close to $2.3 million and have spent nearly $2 million on the race. Outside groups have also spent big, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending more than $3 million on the race combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Smith gave Garcia and his allies ammunition in late April when she mocked Garcia's military qualifications, contrasting her "constitutional law books" with his "pictures of planes." Garcia graduated first in his flight-school class and flew in more than 30 combat missions.
Smith was also criticized for prioritizing her campaign over the coronavirus pandemic. As chair of California's Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, Smith failed to hold a single committee hearing on the coronavirus. She canceled a hearing scheduled for March 4, one day after she celebrated her primary victory.
Should Garcia hold on to his lead, he will serve the remaining months of Hill's term. Smith and Garcia will then face off again in November to determine who holds the seat for a full two years. While the November race will likely be tougher to win for Garcia given the increased turnout associated with presidential elections, Republicans are hopeful that momentum from the special election will once again put him in a position to win. Regardless of Tuesday's result, Garcia spokesman Lance Trover and Patterson both expressed confidence in the California Republican's matchup against Smith.
"The differences between Mike Garcia and Christy Smith couldn't be more clear—Mike is a former Navy fighter pilot and small businessman who wants to lower taxes, while liberal assemblywoman Smith hasn't met a tax she didn't want to raise on Californians," Trover said.
"That doesn't change in November," Patterson said.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment.