National Democrats are now prepared to lose in a special election to replace California Rep. Katie Hill in Congress, a stinging defeat in a district Democrats flipped less than two years ago and where the party’s candidate has relentlessly hammered President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Absentee ballot returns and internal polling from both parties indicate that Mike Garcia, a GOP former fighter pilot and defense industry executive running with Trump’s endorsement, is now a clear favorite over Assemblywoman Christy Smith.
The race was set after Hill, a Democrat, resigned from Congress following reports she had an affair with a staffer – a messy scandal that still looms over the election and is hurting Smith’s chances of victory, Democrats said.
“There are no two ways to slice it. We are down right now,” Smith’s campaign wrote in a fundraising email to supporters on Friday. “Republicans are turning in their ballots faster than Democrats. We might just lose this toss-up election.”
Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, Republicans have greatly outnumbered Democrats in returning the ballots that were mailed to every voter in the district because of the pandemic. Democrats in both D.C. and California believe the party will have a better chance of winning the seat in November, when the electorate will be larger and more focused on the president.
Still, there is a possibility Smith will be able to close the gap in the final days. Democrats successfully fought to open a voting center in a minority-majority city in the district for the final days of the contest ― a development that has infuriated Trump, who spread falsehoods about the decision on Saturday.
“So in California, the Democrats, who fought like crazy to get all mail in only ballots, and succeeded, have just opened a voting booth in the most Democrat area in the State,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “They are trying to steal another election. It’s all rigged out there. These votes must not count. SCAM!”
A Smith loss would be tough to take for Democrats in a district where Trump remains deeply unpopular. But while the 2018 cycle saw a slew of close special elections that functioned as previews for the Democratic wave in that year’s midterm elections, operatives in both parties agree this election is more of a standalone event than a harbinger of things to come.
Garcia, a veteran and first-generation American, is the type of candidate Republicans often talk about recruiting but rarely convince to run. While other swing districts in Southern California are located in Orange County, more upscale and trending sharply toward Democrats, the 25th is inland, exurban and less educated, with agriculture, aerospace and defense as significant industries. And Smith has made embarrassing missteps and struggled with fundraising in an ultra-expensive district.
Democrats were initially confident of holding onto the seat after Hill’s resignation following a messy scandal where nude photos of her were leaked on the internet and she admitted to an affair with a campaign staffer. (She denied having an affair with a member of congressional staff, which would have violated House ethics rules.)
Hill and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly backed Smith to replace her. Smith finished first in the all-party jungle primary, earning 36 percent of the vote. (Her main Democratic competition, Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, earned just 6 percent.)
But while the 32-year-old Hill, a bisexual, gun-owning, nonprofit founder and daughter of a policeman, was able to portray herself as part of a “new generation of leaders,” Smith has a more conventional political background as a staffer for the federal Department of Education, a local school board member and an assemblywoman.
Republicans have hammered that more traditional record, with Garcia and the National Republican Congressional Committee labeling her “Sacramento Smith,” attacking her for laying off teachers following the Great Recession and for failing to hold hearings on pandemic preparedness in the legislature.
And while Hill was considered a good fit for the district when she ran, her favorability ratings there are now deeply unpopular. National Democrats grimaced when Hill used leftover campaign funds to run an ad featuring herself speaking direct-to-camera and encouraging people to vote.
There are some disagreements between Democrats over how Smith found herself in a weakened position. While most of the Democrats who ran in special elections during the 2018 cycle found themselves raking in online small-dollar money hand over fist, Smith’s fundraising has been roughly parallel with Garcia’s.
After a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee briefing on the race in February, several California House Democrats said they planned to call Smith to push her to raise more cash, according to a Democratic source who attended the briefing.
While the DCCC has spent $3 million on ads, research and aid to the campaign, House Majority PAC ― a super PAC controlled by allies of Speaker Nancy Pelosi ― said this week it had decided not to spend and was focused on winning the seat in November. HMP, as the group is known, spent about $1 million before the primary trying to keep Garcia from finishing in the top two of the all-party primary. (The other major Republican in the race was former Rep. Steve Knight, who lost to Hill in 2018.)
Some Democrats in Southern California have grumbled that the money would’ve been better spent boosting Smith’s name identification in a district where it can be difficult to generate news media coverage ― the Los Angeles media market includes parts of 28 congressional districts.
Smith has tried to keep the focus on Garcia’s ties to Trump, and on Trump’s poor response to the coronavirus.
“Donald Trump’s record on coronavirus?” a narrator asks in one of Smith’s ads. “Delays, dishonesty, failure. And Mike Garcia attacks everyone who doesn’t agree with Trump.”
Trump rapidly stepped up his involvement in the race on Saturday, focused on the opening of an in-person voting center in Lancaster ― a city where 58% of residents are Black or Latino, according to census data. In a slew of misleading Twitter missives on Saturday morning, he said votes cast at the center should be thrown out and falsely claimed the election was “rigged.” (The mayor of Lancaster, a Republican who is supporting Garcia, supported the decision to open the voting center.)
Garcia and the NRCC have echoed those comments. “Even after every voter received a ballot, they are desperate and trying to change the rules to steal an election,” Garcia wrote on Twitter. “We can’t let them succeed!!”