Democrats are fearful that their grasp on a House seat in California they flipped less than two years ago may be slipping.
The party is scrambling to hold onto California’s 25th District in a special election set for Tuesday, when their candidate, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, will face off against Republican Mike Garcia for the seat previously held by former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who resigned last year amid a House ethics investigation into an inappropriate relationship between her and one of her staffers.
Public polling in the race has been scarce in recent weeks, though privately, Democrats acknowledge that it’s likely to be a nail-biter, and election handicappers have marked the contest as a toss-up.
If Garcia defeats Smith on Tuesday, it will mark the first time a Republican has flipped a House seat in California since 1998.
Hill won a 9-point victory over one-term Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) in the 2018 midterm elections, flipping the last remaining GOP-held House seat based in Los Angeles County.
Her victory was part of a series of wins by Democrats in longtime Republican strongholds in California, including in Orange County and the Central Valley.
The special election will decide who serves out the rest of Hill’s term, which expires next January, and a rematch between Smith and Garcia in November is almost certain.
But a win by Garcia on Tuesday would likely be seen by Republicans as a sign that their fortunes in the suburban and exurban areas they lost in the 2018 midterm elections may be turning around.
“Obviously, if the Republicans were to win it they would feel really good about it, and they should,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It would represent a bounce-back of sorts.”
But Kondik noted that special elections “are hard to project forward,” and even if the GOP is able to recapture California’s 25th District on Tuesday, the party will face a tougher playing field in November, when the presidential election is expected to drive up voter turnout.
Democrats have a roughly 28,000-person advantage over Republicans in voter registration in the district, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. And Hillary Clinton beat President Trump there in 2016 by nearly 7 points. Taken together, those two factors could portend higher turnout for Democrats come to the November general election.
“It’s a different turnout model, and that’s not just because of the pandemic but special elections just don’t have the turnout that a presidential election would,” he said.
The election is being conducted almost entirely by mail, and ballot returns last week heavily favored Republicans. As of last Thursday, roughly 45 percent of the 108,000 ballots returned came from registered Republicans, while about 35 percent came from Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, the vice president of the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.
Smith acknowledged the challenge in overcoming Republicans’ advantage in early ballot returns on Sunday.
“The reality in special elections for Democrats has always been trying to figure out what motivates our voters to vote as consistently and as early as Republican voters do,” she said during an interview on MSNBC on Sunday.