GOP Surges in Wisconsin, California Special Elections

Republicans lead in two bellwether districts following special elections

May 13, 2020

Tuesday's congressional special elections brought promising results for President Donald Trump and the GOP, as Republicans took commanding leads in swing districts widely seen as a bellwether for November.

State senator Tom Tiffany won big in Wisconsin, while former Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia jumped to a commanding lead in California and is poised to become the first Republican to flip a Democratic seat in the state since 1998.

Tiffany coasted to victory late Tuesday night, receiving more than 109,000 votes to Democrat Tricia Zunker's 82,000, a 15-point advantage. In California, Garcia held a strong 16,000-vote lead after polls closed Tuesday, and the gap widened as in-person ballots trickled in Wednesday morning. The results come as a major boost for Republicans, who have not flipped a California congressional seat from blue to red in more than two decades. Garcia is now likely to become the only House Republican that represents a district where Hillary Clinton took more than 50 percent of the vote in 2016, an encouraging sign for the GOP with November just months away. Both Tiffany and Garcia were backed by Trump.

Tiffany touted his win in a statement released Tuesday night, thanking supporters for making the "decisive victory possible." He will replace former GOP representative Sean Duffy, who resigned last fall. The seat was previously held by Democrats for more than four decades prior to Duffy's 2010 victory.

"Throughout the campaign, one thing was made resoundingly clear: the people of our district want … someone who will work with President Trump to get our families safely through these rough times and back to prosperity," Tiffany said. "That has always been my promise to you and I am ready to hit the ground running on day one."

Garcia now leads Democrat Christy Smith by 12 points in the race to replace disgraced "throuple" congresswoman Katie Hill. While the race has not been officially called—California officials will accept mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day that arrive before Friday—Garcia's lead is likely to hold. The California Republican currently leads Los Angeles County, where most untallied ballots are located, by 11 points. Garcia declared victory Wednesday morning, saying he is "ready to go to work right away for the citizens of the 25th Congressional District."

"After seeing more results last night, it is clear that our message of lower taxes and ensuring we don't take liberal Sacramento dysfunction to Washington prevailed," he said. "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."

Smith called the race "too early to call" in a Tuesday night statement, saying she will "return to the State Assembly" and "look[s] forward to seeing a thorough counting of the remaining ballots."

While Tuesday's result gives Republicans momentum going into the general election, Trump still faces hurdles in his reelection campaign. He trails Biden in many national polls and his campaign has acknowledged that it must overcome gaps in swing states that were vital to his 2016 victory. This could have repercussions for Garcia, who will again face Smith in November. Trump remains unpopular in the district, and national Democrats are confident they can flip the seat again with Trump on the top of the ticket in November. An Emerson College poll released in early May showed Biden leading Trump in California by 30 points.

National Democrats expected to easily hold the seat prior to the scandal and Hill's subsequent resignation. On Monday, data site FiveThirtyEight said the special elections "could hint at another blue wave in 2020." Garcia was presumed to hold a lead going into Election Day. Election experts expected the race to tighten Tuesday as major national Democrats rushed to boost Smith. She received May endorsements from Clinton and former president Barack Obama, as well as an Election Day endorsement from twice-failed presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.). Smith also pushed in-person voting—Los Angeles County officials on Friday announced the opening of a new voting center for the election in Lancaster, a city that has trended blue in recent years, at her campaign's request.

The late scramble was likely not enough for Smith, who was running to replace former representative Katie Hill after the Democrat resigned in November amid a salacious scandal involving a "throuple" relationship with a campaign staffer. Smith announced her candidacy the day after Hill's resignation and described the disgraced congresswoman as a "friend" and "patriot." Hill attempted to boost Smith's candidacy by making a $200,000 ad buy aimed at driving Democratic turnout. The decision likely backfired—Hill reportedly did not inform national party operatives of her plans to release the ad, and according to Politico, a private December poll showed that her unfavorable rating topped her favorable rating in the district by double digits.

Trump praised Tiffany and Garcia in a Wednesday morning tweet celebrating the results.

"Big Congressional win in California for Mike Garcia, taking back a seat from the Democrats. This is the first time in many years that a California Dem seat has flipped back to a Republican," he said. "Also, Tom Tiffany beat his Democrat rival BIG in Wisconsin. Two great Congressional WINS!"

California has yet to certify the race and has set a Friday deadline for accepting ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day.