It's been nearly three months since former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill (CA-25) resigned amid leaked nude photos and a House Ethics Committee investigation into an alleged inappropriate relationship with a staffer. But both the special and regular elections — set for March 3 initial rounds — have been less dramatic, and Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith has emerged as a heavy favorite.
Voters could be forgiven for being confused: on March 3 (Super Tuesday), there will be two separate CA-25 elections featuring candidates of all parties, meaning the leading contenders will need to remind voters to vote for them twice.
The first is the special election: unless one of the dozen candidates (six Democrats, five Republicans and one independent) receives at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two candidates will be held on May 12. The second is the primary for the full term starting in January 2021, and the top two finishers, no matter their party or vote share, will advance to the November general.
In truth, the confusing ballot and the tabloid-worthy sideshow candidacies of Young Turks host Cenk Uygur and former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos probably make the race look more unpredictable than it really is.
Of the dozen candidates running in each election, there are only three with a serious shot at advancing to either a May 12 special runoff or November: Smith (who flipped a GOP-held Assembly seat in 2018) and two Republicans, former Rep. Steve Knight (whom Hill defeated by nine points in 2018) and Navy veteran Mike Garcia. Democrats and Smith hold several massive advantages.
First, the 25th CD's trend line strongly favors Democrats. In 2012, it voted for Mitt Romney 50 percent to 48 percent and Republicans held a 39 percent to 35 percent registration advantage. In 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton 50 percent to 43 percent in 2016 and Democrats held a 36 percent to 32 percent registration edge — an advantage that has widened to six points in 2020.
Second, Gov. Gavin Newsom scheduled the special to coincide with Super Tuesday, when Democratic presidential primary turnout is likely to dwarf turnout on the GOP side, where President Trump doesn't face a competitive renomination. That means it's not impossible Smith could hit the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a special election runoff altogether — even in a crowded, 12-way field.
Third, Smith has a dream profile for this swing suburban district. The four-decade 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. And especially valuable for this short sprint of a race: her seat already covers 58 percent of the 25th CD.
Amid the chaos of Hill's resignation, Smith quickly consolidated Democratic support as Hill's logical, hand-picked replacement. "There's no one else that I could even think of that I would want to run for this seat," Hill told the Huffington Post. Since then, Smith picked up endorsements from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the California Democratic Party and raised over $840,000.
And, Smith strikes a pragmatic tone, emphasizing her work on charter school accountability, emergency management and public safety. In her latest ad, Smith talks about the struggles of her mother, a nurse, to afford insulin and heart medication. “I’ll work with both parties to make health care affordable, protect people with pre-existing conditions and lower drug costs," she says.
Despite the national notoriety of far-left provocateur and Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, there's little evidence he has genuine support in the 25th CD — which isn't a progressive activist hotbed. Uygur lives far outside the 25th CD in West Los Angeles and Bernie Sanders retracted his endorsement of Uygur when confronted with misogynistic comments Uygur has made in the past.
Meanwhile, the GOP split between Knight and Garcia has forced both of them to jockey for base support rather than appealing to swing voters. Knight has the most name ID from his three terms and the support of 25th CD neighbor and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but Garcia is raising more money and has endorsements from both the Los Angeles and Ventura county parties.
Some Republican strategists are wary of Knight's comeback and impressed by Garcia's resume. An Iraq veteran and Santa Clarita native, Garcia became one of the first Super Hornet strike fighter pilots in the Navy. As a ten-year Raytheon executive and a Hispanic step-son of an LAPD officer, he could appeal outside the GOP base and has raised over $750,000.
But Garcia has also had no choice but to bash "extreme liberals" and the impeachment process against Trump to woo base GOP voters, and Garcia's defense of the president could be a liability if he advances against Smith.
It's still unlikely one candidate clears 50 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday, given the 12-way field. But whether on March 3 or May 12, Democrats are likely to keep this seat in their column. Republicans don't hold a single seat where Trump took less of the vote in 2016, and haven't picked up a California seat in decades. The race moves from the Lean to Likely Democratic column.