The politics of CA-25 change direction much like the Santa Ana winds shift through the canyons and mountain passes: warm and pleasant most of the time, but can ignite a firestorm and scorch the Earth with just one spark. Drive up the 5 freeway past where the 405 terminates, and marvel at just how many TV shows and movies use the stunning foothills and generic upper middle class suburban developments as backdrops. Head northeast on the 14 freeway and watch the desolate high desert cities morph from a haven for biker gangs, white supremacists, and eccentric scientists who build geodesic domes to a vibrant working class Latino community. Westward, the 118 freeway into Simi Valley and part of Ventura County is named for former President Ronald Reagan and home to families in the military and law enforcement. It’s beautiful to look at, as long as it’s not engulfed in flames from yet another catastrophic wildfire or decimated by an earthquake.
I spent a large part of my adolescence and young adulthood in the foothills of CA25, attended high school in the same district as several of the candidates, and I’m finally ready to discuss the joy of voting in a district that values perception over reality.
Former Rep. Katie Hill learned how quickly the political winds of change can reverse. Hill rode 2018’s “Blue Wave” to a stunning Democratic victory over Republican incumbent Steve Knight in a district that had voted GOP consistently for over two decades. Much of Hill’s success was due to a dedicated ground campaign in her home base of Santa Clarita, social media buzz, and the general desire of the district to find a more relatable millennial candidate. Katie Hill’s star ascended to a level that few freshmen Congressional representatives achieve, serving on multiple high-powered committees at the behest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Unfortunately, in the fall of 2019, a massive scandal involving Hill, her ex-husband, and two of her staffers hit Capitol Hil and the internet, along with several X-rated photos. With a Congressional ethics investigation looming large, Hill opted to resign from her seat, prompting a special election in California’s 25th Congressional District which will run concurrently with the state partisan primary on March 3, 2020.
CA-25 hasn’t always been a predictable Republican stronghold in recent years. While it did go for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, the district did not vote for Kamala Harris or Dianne Feinstein in the Senate race, and former CA-25 Rep. Steve Knight won the Congressional seat in 2014 and 2016 following longtime representative Howard “Buck” McKeon’s retirement. Interestingly, Knight has never pulled the kind of numbers that get national attention, and there is little enthusiasm for his current campaign.
The reddest areas of CA-25 are Ventura County’s Simi Valley area, parts of Santa Clarita Valley, Quartz Hill, and Pearblossom in northernmost Los Angeles County. The bluest areas are Porter Ranch, Val Verde, Newhall, and newly-Latino Antelope Valley. Most of the voters in the red areas are white, military or law enforcement, ranchers, or small business owners. Katie Hill did well with these voters because she was a local candidate who supported the second amendment, had family in law enforcement, and was able to relate to voters who were concerned about an overly progressive political agenda taking over a relatively conservative district.
So who has a shot at winning the special election in CA-25? Well… it’s actually two separate races on the ballot. The special election is only for the remainder of Hill’s term. Then voters will need to decide which candidates advance to the general election in November. In theory, two different candidates could be elected. While there is no shortage of candidates, keep in mind that special elections are not run exactly like a top two primary. In a top two or jungle primary, all the candidates run agsinst each other, and the top two finishers go to a runoff, regardless of party or vote totals. In a special election, if any candidate gets more than 50 % of the vote, they win outright and there is no runoff. Due to the sheer volume of candidates who have filed to run, the odds of anyone winning 51% of the vote and dodging a runoff are slim.
Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Assembly District 38) is a more establishment-friendly candidate than predecessor Katie Hill, and she’s from Santa Clarita. If she can perform better in the redder areas of Simi Valley and Antelope Valley than Hill did in 2018, she’s got a good chance of finishing top two. Wolf PAC leader, The Young Turks host, and Progressive candidate Cenk Uygur has probably raised the most money and received the most media coverage, but it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the area or its socially conservative mindset all that well, and he is considered an unwelcome outsider by most of the voters in the district. While his recent visit to a homeless encampment in Antelope Valley might have worked as an extension of goodwill and photo op, it might backfire in a community of NIMBYs who want the homeless population eliminated by any means necessary. That may sound hyperbolic, but there were literally zero homeless shelters in Santa Clarita Valley and Simi Valley a decade ago because voters were afraid that building a shelter would bring down their property values. The only Democrats who survive CA-25 are to some degree, establishment Democrats. The remaining Democratic candidates can’t seem to break out from the pack and will have negligible impact for either ballot race.
The local GOP hasn’t lived down the humiliation of Knight’s 2018 defeat and they’ve made sure Knight will never live it down either. He’s been blackballed by his own party and the voters of CA25 have about as much enthusiasm for him as they do for a bowl of cold oatmeal and a warm glass of Metamucil. While Simi Valley may favor Knight, there’s no question he’s lost his home base in the Antelope Valley. Santa Clarita doesn’t seem excited by the prospect of two more years of Knight. Will he rally or will he join the long list of obsolete CA politicians doomed to live out the rest of their political careers in denial of their own irrelevance?
Navy veteran Mike Garcia is ready to shove Knight out of the spotlight. Garcia has raised an impressive $500,000 in campaign donations, and his ability to network and be seen at all the right events hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s been gunning for the CA-25 seat since the beginning of 2019 and there’s no love lost between him and former rep Katie Hill, with Garcia referring to her as a socialist and anti-military. Garcia’s outspoken conservatism and ties to local defense contractors may boost his chances with white conservative voters, but whether Latino voters will respond favorably to him is still a question. Garcia is a political newcomer, wants this win badly, and how far he will go for GOP superstardom has yet to be determined.
On a related note, one of the more prominent endorsements for Garcia came from conservative Santa Clarita radio host and William S.Hart Union School District board member, Joe Messina. (Messina just happens to be the person who distributed Katie Hill’s X-rated photographs to the tabloids back in October, after receiving the files from Hill’s ex-husband. Yes, you read that correctly. A member of the local school board sent nude pictures of his Congressional representative to Red State and the Daily Mail. Katie Hill was a former student in the Hart school district. Last time I checked, it was kind of creepy for a school board member to distribute explicit photos of former students. Just saying.)
Speaking of fringe right-wing candidates, former Trump advisor and convicted felon George Papadopoulos declared his candidacy early on. Sadly, CA25 wasn’t a Trump county in 2016, and Papadopoulos hasn’t picked up on that fact yet. Much like Cenk Uygur, he’s considered to be an opportunistic carpetbagger.
Early voting for the March 3 election starts on February 3 and there are major changes for voters in LA County – a rollout of the highly anticipated Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) election system, increased vote by mail opportunity, and same-day voter registration. Ballot counting is expected to take even longer than usual next year. Campaigns may need infinite reserves of patience as they await the results. And even more patience during the runoff.
My prediction: Special Election: Lean D, and it will advance to a runoff. Primary Election: Toss Up, Smith will make Top 2, but Knight may not have momentum and Garcia could be the spoiler.