A special election Tuesday in southern California is the first consequential congressional contest since the coronavirus pandemic struck and an early test of campaign outreach to self-quarantining voters casting ballots primarily by mail.
Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith faces Republican Mike Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot and Raytheon executive, in the 25th District, which includes Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, and other areas of northern Los Angeles County and southeastern Ventura County.
The race has drawn outsized national attention and the intervention of outside groups and political luminaries. President Donald Trump endorsed Garcia, and on Monday morning on Twitter he urged voters to cast their ballots for the Republican. Former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton declared their support for Smith.
“You have the parties putting a lot of money into the race, and you have a test run for what voting might look like in November because of Covid,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
The district has drifted away from Republicans in recent elections. It voted Democratic for president by 50%-44% in 2016 and Democratic for governor in 2018 by 51%-49%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.
Yet Garcia could pull a mild upset in the district formerly held by Katie Hill (D), who resigned last November amid a sordid personal scandal less than a year after she wrested the seat from decades-long Republican control. Republicans haven’t won a Democratic-held district in a special election since 2011 and need a net gain of 18 seats to win a majority.
Garcia, a first-time candidate, ran heavily on his background as a Navy fighter pilot and his ties to the aerospace industry, a major employer in the district. He said the high taxes imposed by California’s Democratic policymakers prompted families to move to lower-tax states. He called for the 2017 Republican tax-cut law to be made permanent — with a tweak to eliminate its $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, which has hurt higher-tax states such as California.
“I think you can frankly drive a truck between Christy Smith and I in terms of tax policies. I’m for low taxes. I’m pro-growth, pro-business, pro-taxpayer,” Garcia said at an online candidate debate late last month. He called attention to Hill’s scandal by saying he would serve in Congress “with pride and dignity — without drama, just results.”
Smith highlighted her experience as a local school board member and since last year as a state legislator representing a district that includes about 58% of the congressional district’s residents. She called for a robust public health infrastructure and touted her relationships with California’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation.
“I’m the person running with the most actual government experience. And I think if ever there was a time that proves that we need our government institutions to be standing up and working on behalf of the American people and on behalf of Californians, that moment is now,” Smith said earlier this month on the southern California political talk show “The Issue Is.”
She linked Garcia to Trump in English- and Spanish-language ads, which attacked Trump’s response to the pandemic and showed Smith wearing a face covering and delivering food.
Smith apologized after facing criticism for seeming to make light of Garcia’s military pilot background in a leaked video town hall meeting.
Garcia and Smith each raised about $2.3 million through April 22, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee each spent more than $1 million on the election.
The race has underscored partisan tensions over expanded vote-by-mail balloting during the pandemic. While Trump has claimed without evidence that voting by mail is rife with fraud and favors Democrats, Republicans outperformed Democrats in the earliest mail-in ballots cast in the special election.
Of 115,581 ballots returned as of May 7, 45% came from registered Republicans, 36% from Democrats, and 20% from independents or third-party voters, according to California-based Political Data Inc. All registered voters in California’s 25th District were mailed a ballot. There will be some in-person voting at voting centers on Tuesday.
“The real risk is not voter fraud, it’s having voters not show up,” Levinson said.
The winner of the election will fill the remaining eight months of the unexpired term Hill won in 2018. Smith and Garcia also will be opponents in the November general election after securing the most votes in the regularly scheduled March primary.
Wisconsin Special Election
Republicans are on more favorable political terrain in another special election Tuesday in Wisconsin’s 7th District, which includes Wausau, Superior, and other territory in the northwestern reaches of the state.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany is favored to defeat Democrat Tricia Zunker, a Wausau school board member and law professor. Sean Duffy (R) resigned in September.
Tiffany emphasized his upbringing on a dairy farm, his nine years of service in the legislature, and owning an excursion boat company with his wife. In a candidate debate earlier this month, Tiffany said he was “tested” Of 118,312 ballots returned as of May 8, 44% came from registered Republicans, 36% from Democrats, and 20% from independents or third-party voters, according to California-based Political Data Inc. one they issue.
Zunker said Tiffany would be “a rubber stamp for anything Trump says or does.” Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in the 2016 election, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.
Tiffany and Zunker both said they wanted to serve on the Agriculture Committee from Wisconsin’s largest district.
Nebraska is holding its regularly scheduled primary Tuesday.
Three Democrats are vying to unseat two-term Rep. Don Bacon (R) in the Omaha-based 2nd District, the most competitive of the state’s three districts.
Kara Eastman, who lost 51%-49% to Bacon in the 2018 election, supports a Medicare for All health care system and is a favorite of national progressive organizations. Ann Ashford, a lawyer, is running as a more moderate and electable candidate.
Ashford’s husband, ex-Rep. Brad Ashford, was unseated by Bacon in the 2016 election and lost a comeback attempt to Eastman in the 2018 Democratic primary.
“If Kara Eastman can’t beat Don Bacon with millions of dollars in a Democratic wave, how can she do it in 2020?” an Ashford ad states.
Gladys Harrison, a restaurant owner who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, raised far less than than Eastman or Ashford.
Nebraska votes strongly Republican in statewide elections, and Sen. Ben Sasse (R) is favored to win a second term in November over the winner of a seven-candidate Democratic primary.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org