Democratic Rep. Katie Hill's exit from Congress following her acknowledgment of an inappropriate relationship with a campaign staffer and the unauthorized publication of nude photos is an explosive end to a quick political rise. Now a special election in this traditionally GOP but Democratic-trending northern LA County seat could be competitive.
In 2018, as an anti-homelessness non-profit executive and openly bisexual 31-year-old first-time candidate, Hill raised $8.4 million, beat out her party's previous nominee in the primary and unseated GOP Rep. Steve Knight by nine points. She'd been chosen as the freshman co-representative to leadership and vice chair of the House Oversight Committee. Now she's set to resign by the end of the week.
Under California law, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom must schedule a special all-party primary election within 140 days of declaring a vacancy, which could allow it to coincide with the state's Super Tuesday presidential primary on March 3. But if no candidate receives more than 50 percent, the top two finishers — regardless of party — would advance to a general election to be held within 180 days.
Luckily for Democrats, the 25th CD's trend line favors them. In 2012, it voted for Mitt Romney 50 percent to 48 percent but voted for Hillary Clinton 50 percent to 43 percent in 2016. In 2012, Republicans held a 39 percent to 35 percent registration advantage. Today, the district is 43 percent white and 38 percent Hispanic, and Democrats hold a 36 percent to 32 percent registration edge.
However, northern LA County still sees itself as culturally a world apart from downtown LA. The Antelope Valley has an agricultural heritage and the aerospace and defense industries are major economic drivers (for many years, GOP House Armed Services Chair Buck McKeon held this seat). In 2016, Knight survived largely by casting his Democratic opponent as a Beverly Hills lawyer and carpetbagger.
And, some Republicans believe they already have the perfect candidate in Iraq veteran Mike Garcia, a Santa Clarita native who 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 already had $322,000 at the end of September to take on Hill.
Fortunately for Democrats, they already have a strong contender in Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who announced her candidacy on Monday. The former U.S. Department of Education analyst and Newhall School Board president defeated a GOP incumbent in 2018 and represents nearly three fifths of the 25th CD, including Santa Clarita and Simi Valley. But there may be others.
One statewide Democrat rumored to be interested is Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who served as LA City Council president last decade but now lives in the 25th CD. Another Democratic possibility is former NASA chief of staff and current Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, who heads up Sir Richard Branson's human spaceflight venture and lives in the Antelope Valley.
Padilla would bring immediate name ID and party endorsements to the race, which could be especially beneficial if the special primary coincides with the high-turnout Democratic presidential primary. But he could also be vulnerable to the "career politician" and "LA Democratic machine" labels if he were to advance to a runoff against Garcia or GOP Lancaster Councilwoman Angela Underwood-Jacobs.
Despite her tabloid-worthy personal tribulations, Hill had $1.5 million on hand and started as a strong favorite for reelection in a high-turnout presidential year. Republicans gripe Democrats' newly legal ballot-harvesting operation has hastened their Golden State losses, but a special election could create a unique opportunity. The 25th CD moves from Likely to Lean Democrat.
Image: Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images