Late Wednesday, Democrat Christy Smith conceded defeat to Republican Mike Garcia in the special election in California's 25th District, handing Republicans their first pickup in the state since 1998. Although tens of thousands of votes are still untallied and Garcia's margin is likely to shrink, both parties are confident Garcia's current 56 percent to 44 percent lead is insurmountable.
Sometimes special elections blow with the national winds, and some fly in the face of them. The same night Garcia took back a district that voted for Hillary Clinton by seven points and flipped to Democrat Katie Hill by nine points in 2018, GOP state Sen. Tom Tiffany won a less competitive special election in Wisconsin's 7th CD by 14 points, down six from Trump's 20 point margin there in 2016.
But above all, special election's place more of a premium on candidate quality and local factors than regularly scheduled ones — and the stand-alone nature of the special helped Garcia localize the race and defy President Trump's unpopularity.
Some Democrats continue to blame Hill for the loss — both for creating the vacancy by resigning and for inserting herself in the special by spending $200,000 on her awkward ad imploring Democrats to vote, despite voters' hangover from the ethics investigation into her relationships with staff. But the district's reversal from 2018 likely had much more to do with three fundamentals:
1. Candidate quality
In a cycle when the NRCC has struggled to recruit in other races, Garcia proved a political unicorn: as a military veteran, son of a Mexican immigrant and protege of popular former GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, Garcia is many things Trump is not. And, the Navy fighter pilot-turned-Raytheon executive billed himself more as a "badass" than a partisan.
In the words of one California strategist, Garcia "ran a campaign straight out of Top Gun," constantly appearing in front of planes and featuring wings in his logo — a hit in a district with a huge defense and aerospace industry. At one point, Smith grew so tired of the tactic that on a Zoom call that she eye-rolled, "I'm like, 'OK, he's got pictures of planes behind him,'" for which she later apologized.
Unlike in 2018, when Hill was the outsider — an anti-homelessness, non-profit executive running against bombastic GOP Rep. Steve Knight, who had voted to repeal the ACA and gut the SALT deduction — this time, Garcia was the outsider and Smith had the record to attack. Republicans cast her as "Sacramento Smith," despite her only having been elected in 2018.
In particular, Republicans believe Smith's vote for AB5 — a new law intended to reclassify more gig workers and force employers to protect them — backfired because the law has proven a nightmare for both freelancers and employers to navigate. But Smith likely became a punching bag for many different frustrations with Sacramento, including some voters' thin patience for lockdowns.
2. Local turnout dynamics
Despite Democrats' praise for an election in which every voter automatically received a ballot by mail, and Trump's tweeted rage at vote centers where same-day registration was available, the "surge" turnout that propelled Democrats in 2016 (274,000 votes cast) and 2018 (245,000 cast) was nowhere to be found. That benefited Republicans.
In the 25th CD and other exurban, diversifying districts like it, the highest-propensity voters — and the most reliable vote-by-mail partakers — tend to be older, white residents who lean Republican. The lower-propensity voters tend to be younger, non-white Santa Clarita Valley newcomers who lean Democratic and may have been priced out of Los Angeles by rising living costs.
Current results (with 143,000 votes counted) illustrate this: Smith underperformed Hill's 2018 vote share by seven points in the wealthier Ventura County section of the 25th CD. But, she underperformed Hill by 11 points in Los Angeles County, suggesting Democrats failed to motivate lower-income, non-white Democrats in working-class cities like Lancaster and Palmdale to return ballots.
3. Less at stake nationally
In 2018, suburban moderate Republicans and independents who didn't like Trump only had one option to send a message: vote for a Democrat for House as a check on the president. But in this one-off race, voters who may have liked Garcia but not Trump didn't have to choose between Garcia or a Democratic House: they could have both.
According to Political Data Inc., a top California numbers-crunching firm, Republican registrants cast roughly 10,000 more ballots than Democrats among the 143,000 votes counted so far. But Garcia's lead is around 18,000 votes, indicating that he won a higher share of Republicans than Smith won of Democrats and likely prevailed among voters with no major party preference.
Garcia doesn't have much time to bask in his victory and his status as the soon-to-be only House Republican district where Clinton took a majority of the vote. He'll face Smith again in November in another tough race for a full term.
The good news for Smith, of course, is that the latter two factors — the low turnout and the special's localization — are unlikely to repeat in November. The presidential race is certain to drive out a much larger, more diverse electorate, and Democrats will have plenty of material to tie Garcia to Trump, considering the president embraced Garcia relentlessly on Twitter in the past week.
Republicans are confident that Garcia's new incumbency will allow him to connect with constituents and raise even more money. The previous GOP incumbent here, Knight, ran homegrown campaigns and was a notoriously weak fundraiser; Hill outspent him more than 3-to-1 in 2018. But Garcia kept pace with Smith and could capitalize on his newfound celebrity status in the GOP for the fall.
Smith will also begin the fall race with higher negatives than when she launched her bid. In addition to Garcia's attacks on Sacramento, CLF aired ads accusing her of laying off teachers and raising her own pay while on the Newhall School Board. Smith will need to raise money to reset the narrative, all while chairing a joint legislative committee on emergency preparedness.
Had Smith prevailed, Republicans likely would have thrown in the towel on this seat for the fall, and we would have moved it to the Likely Democratic column. Garcia's impressive win keeps GOP hopes of winning the seat in the fall alive, and fall turnout dynamics keep the race in the Toss Up column. Overall, however, Democrats remain clear favorites to keep the majority.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Michael Blood,File