Republicans betting on a political upset in California

Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia looks like a grade-A recruit for House Republicans. If he scores a surprise victory, Republicans will flip a blue seat in the state for the first time in 22 years.

by Josh Kraushaar

One of the fundamental precepts of politics is that candidates matter. Even in these partisan times, candidates who boast a compelling life story, are blessed with natural charisma, and are able to raise big money from donors will have a leg up on the competition. Talented candidates can win enough crossover support to win races in tough political territory, while weak candidates often fail to take advantage of the strong hands they’re dealt.

House Republicans this cycle have been struggling to recruit top candidates in many friendly districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016. But the tables are turned in an upcoming special election in California that sets the stage for the fall campaign. The swing-district race, to fill the vacancy created by scandal-plagued Democratic Rep. Katie Hill’s resignation, is looking surprisingly favorable for Republicans. The May 12 mail-in election, one of the few taking place in this pandemic-plagued spring, has the potential to give Republicans a morale boost heading into the fall.

The race pits Iraq war veteran and Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia, a Republican, against Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith. Democratic leaders rallied around Smith, a longtime lawmaker, while Republicans spent the beginning of the year divided over their two top candidates. Former Rep. Steve Knight, who lost the seat to Hill in 2018, aimed for a political comeback and was seen as the early favorite by GOP leaders in Washington. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even endorsed his former colleague, but local Republicans made the savvier choice in choosing an outsider like Garcia as their standard-bearer in the March 3 top-two primary.

Garcia’s life story is tailor-made for a high-profile congressional election like this one. Running in the 25th District, where more than one-third of residents are Hispanic, Garcia frequently talks about his story as the son of a Mexican immigrant as an example of living the American dream. He graduated near the top of his class at the Naval Academy, flew 30 combat missions in Iraq as a Super Hornet Strike Fighter pilot, and later served as a top executive at leading defense contractor Raytheon. He calls himself a “Mike Garcia Republican,” attempting to sidestep national politics in a district that gave Trump only 43 percent of the vote.

Smith was the consensus Democratic Party favorite, having begun her political career as a school board president before winning a GOP-held state Assembly seat in the last election. By any measure, she’s a capable candidate. But in an environment where voters tend to be skeptical of political insiders (especially in Democratic-dominated Sacramento), she’ll have to explain some of her votes in the legislature. Republicans have already homed in on her support for controversial legislation requiring California businesses to classify “gig economy” workers as employees entitled to full benefits. The legislation was designed to help employees, but it’s sparked blowback from many workers—from independent artists to freelance journalists—as a job killer.

Democrats also face fierce headwinds from Katie Hill’s all-too-public scandal over an affair with a campaign staffer (and an alleged relationship with a congressional staffer, which she denies). Hill has emerged as a hero in some liberal corners for her crusade against “revenge porn”—she accused her ex-husband of orchestrating the scandal by leaking nude photos of her—but she left office with dismal favorability ratings back home, according to GOP and Democratic operatives tracking the race. Hill endorsed Smith early in the campaign and continued to maintain a high profile in the national media (at least pre-pandemic). Her decision to stay in the spotlight has been damaging to Smith.

The March primary results underscore how competitive this special election is likely to be. Though Hill won the seat by 8 points over Knight in 2018, the Democratic candidates on the ballot this year totaled just 51 percent of the vote in the all-party jungle primary. Given that Democratic turnout was juiced as a result of the presidential primary, the numbers suggest that Garcia is capable of pulling off the upset when it’s the only race on the ballot. “We’re modeling the turnout to be very low and leaning Republican,” said one Democratic operative involved in the race.

Internal polling from both sides underscores that this is a highly competitive race. Multiple GOP polls conducted in recent weeks all show Garcia ahead. One mid-March internal GOP poll, reported by The Cook Political Report, shows Garcia leading Smith by 4 points (43-39 percent). Democrats acknowledge the race is close and have recognized the possibility of a GOP upset for a while. But they’re confident that in a normal November election, with higher turnout, Smith will be favored to win regardless of the special-election results.

Both sides are investing significant resources into the race. The party committees have spent or reserved about $1 million worth of airtime on television to boost their candidates. (The National Republican Congressional Committee is spending some of its money on costly Los Angeles broadcast TV; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending exclusively on cable.) Smith and Garcia have each raised healthy sums of campaign cash for the race and are plowing it into ads designed to introduce themselves to the district.

As one of the only campaigns taking place during the crisis, the special election has become a proving ground for both parties’ messaging during the pandemic. The race will likely turn on which campaign comes up with a more compelling message during these uncertain times.

The DCCC is up with an ad slamming Garcia for allegedly wanting to let “insurance companies deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and hike up costs for life-saving drugs.” The NRCC’s ad doesn’t address health care, but it attacks Smith over a school board vote that led to teacher layoffs. “Imagine her recklessness in these frightening times,” the ad concludes. Garcia has also criticized Smith for not holding a scheduled committee hearing in the legislature as the coronavirus crisis was beginning.

While the uniqueness of this special election means it won’t be particularly predictive for the GOP’s prospects in November, an upset in a district Hillary Clinton carried will show Republicans are still in fighting shape. But it will also remind them that if they had more candidates with résumés like Mike Garcia’s, they’d be in a much better position.

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly “Against the Grain” column. Kraushaar has held several positions since joining Atlantic Media in 2010, including as managing editor for politics at National Journal, and as executive editor and editor-in-chief of The Hotline. In addition to his management of The Hotline, Kraushaar plays a critical role in shaping National Journal’s overall political coverage.

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