When I initially covered the CA-25 primary and special primary this past January, just about every political analyst had Christy Smith easily winning by 51%, avoiding a runoff election against the media-projected opponent of either Cenk Uygur or former CA-25 representative Steve Knight. While the polling certainly supported that projection, it became apparent that few of the analysts, pollsters, Twitter accounts, or traditional media covering the race actually lived in CA-25. I predicted Mike Garcia would knock Steve Knight out of the special and regular primaries, keep Christy Smith out of the 51% threshold for an outright victory in the special, and be the overall candidate to watch on Super Tuesday.
The response from the political/election Twitter community ranged from “those odds are unlikely” to “are you huffing glue?”. From an outside perspective, the polling supported Likely Democratic and so did the experts. I called a Toss Up during the first week of January. Last week, the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball shifted their rating from Lean D to Toss Up. Vindication feels good.
Polling is a funny thing. You try to ask all the right questions, talk to the right people, collect the right data and – boom! Something that you wouldn’t have thought of in a million years winds up being the variable that determines the outcome of an election. Next month’s special election runoff in California’s 25th congressional district has no shortage of uncontrolled variables, much to the consternation of frontrunner Christy Smith (D) and her opponent, wild card candidate Mike Garcia (R).
A surprising special primary
CA-25 is one of those places that nobody understands unless they’ve lived there a while. While it’s part of both Ventura and Los Angeles counties, there is a remoteness and feeling of disconnect with the rest of the county. Some of it might be the mountain ranges that divide it on all sides and some of it might be the ingrained conservatism that never really goes away, even in the face of a major demographic shift. Fear of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a statewide lockdown have only intensified the isolation in the district. Due to valid concerns about community spread of COVID-19, Secretary of State Alex Padilla moved to conduct the May 12 special election runoff entirely by mail.
Special elections in California are a regular and slightly annoying occurrence. In 2006, the state coined the term “election fatigue” in response to a barrage of special, recall, and runoff elections that failed to enact responsive government. As a general rule, special primaries and runoffs do not garner the kind of turnout that a midterm election will. Even with the hype surrounding California’s Super Tuesday primary debut, the turnout for both the CA-25 special primary to finish the term vacated by former Representative Katie Hill and the regular top two primary that determines who will be on the November 2020 ballot was unimpressive.
Out of the district’s 418,196 registered voters, only 161,860 voters cast a ballot in the primary. Christy Smith received a total of 58,563 votes (45,011 from Los Angeles County and 13,552 from Ventura County) for a total of 36.2% of the vote. Mike Garcia surprised everyone by receiving 41,169 votes (29,121 from Los Angeles County and 12,048 from Ventura County) giving him 25.4 % of the vote. Former Representative Steve Knight missed the cut with just 27,799 votes, good for third-place.
Neither Garcia or Knight had the votes to best Garcia, but between their totals, the GOP gained a lead of just over 10,000 votes over Smith, resulting in 42.6% of the vote. Keep in mind that in January and February, Smith was slated to win 50% + 1 of the vote in the special primary, avoiding a May runoff. The uncontrolled variables tell the story.
Christy Smith has incumbent party advantage thanks to Katie Hill’s 2018 victory, but that doesn’t mean that Smith’s campaign wasn’t adversely impacted by the fallout from Hill’s abrupt resignation. CA-25 is not exactly a bastion of tolerance and forgiveness. It’s a socially conservative area with a lot of Mormons, Latinos, evangelicals, and ancestral Republicans, and there’s a general sense that even Democratic voters haven’t exactly recovered from the October 2019 fallout that ranged from Clintonesque to Nixonesque. Among the issues were leaked photos of Hill in compromising situations, her affairs with younger campaign staff, a very public divorce, campaign finance discrepancies, and the 2018 primary hacking scandal involving two of her Democratic rivals, which spurred an FBI investigation into the computer activities of her campaign fundraising director’s husband.
Initially, most people were sympathetic to Hill, who was indisputably a victim of revenge porn from GOP operatives with axes to grind. She was grieving an unimaginable family tragedy, caring for a sick parent, and coping with mass scale public humiliation. However, Hill’s 2020 image rehab tour backfired spectacularly after multiple Twitter meltdowns and the public perception that she wasn’t taking accountability for her behavior. Whether it was intentional or not, Hill’s attempt at a media comeback took focus off of Smith at a critical point in the campaign, and Smith could have used the positive press coverage.
One of the aspects of this race that intrigued me back in January was how close Smith and Garcia’s fundraising totals were. Both candidates hit the million-dollar mark well before Super Tuesday. They were even separated by a mere $202 at one point. Smith’s haul was not that surprising. She’s been a popular assemblywoman, had strong Democratic support, and attracted high dollar donations from wealthy out of district donors. Multiple PACs and Super PACs contributed consistently.
Garcia’s fundraising ability wasn’t anything to sneeze at, though. Nearly all of his donations came from inside the district, his fundraising events were packed with people, and he had considerable support from local industries as well as the usual Republican PACs. Amusingly, during January and February of 2020, Smith and Garcia wound up following each other around CA-25, with events that would be mere blocks apart. As of April 13, FEC reports show that Garcia has out-earned Smith.
The NRCC has been working overtime to court black and Latino evangelical voters. The strategy worked well enough in Florida to make it worth the effort in California. While the percentage of black voters is comparatively small throughout the district, they’re an important part of the electorate at the northeastern edge of the county and they’ve largely been ignored by both parties. The DCCC went on a Spanish language media buying spree last month, hoping to court progressive Latino voters. Keep an eye on the Latino turnout in areas like Sylmar, Canyon Country, Palmdale, and Lancaster. Will they align with the Latino Republican, Garcia, or will their more liberal political ideology give the advantage to Smith?
The other things to pay attention to for the Special: did the switch to all Vote by Mail affect the non-white district turnout? Did certain groups have higher or lower rates of ballot return? Do generational cohorts make a difference, and which age groups increased/decreased turnout?
Predictably, Christy Smith has more individual endorsements. The Democrats have a larger presence in California, and just about every current and former Democratic state legislator has endorsed Smith. Locally, however, Mike Garcia has the benefit of endorsements from well-respected former Republican powerhouses who can actually vote for him because they still live in CA-25.
As far as party endorsement, the DCCC has put their support 100% behind Christy Smith, but somehow, there just isn’t the same level of enthusiasm that there was when they endorsed Katie Hill. Is this out of disappointment that Smith isn’t Katie Hill, or is this complacently assuming that incumbent party advantage is enough for an uncontroversial “safe” Democrat to eke it out for the next two elections?
On the GOP side, the NRCC wisely strayed from their comfort zone when they finally backed Garcia over Steve Knight. (See, Republicans? Change and taking a risk won’t kill you.) Garcia is now designated as one of the NRCC’s “Young Guns” and that endorsement carries a lot of weight with the party.
I lived in CA-25 for a significant portion of my life. Now that I’m away from it, I sometimes read political articles from back home and my takeaway is usually “Holy ****. ________ is STILL around?” The political community in the district appreciates recycling. As much as political analysts insist that CA-25 is a blue district, it’s all I can do to not ask them to justify it.
Yes, Katie Hill won. She wasn’t considered the progressive candidate at the time. If the place was shifting that far to the left, then 2018 would have had Brian Caforio or Jess Phoenix as the top 2 finishers in the Democratic primary, not Katie Hill. The way a district votes for President does not always correlate to who happens to be in power on a local level. CA-25 did go for Clinton over Trump in 2016. They also voted for Republican Steve Knight for Congress, Republican Scott Wilk for state senator (SD-21), and Republican Dante Acosta for Assemblyman (AD-38).
It looks like Wilk will be re-elected in SD-21, and the AD-38 race will be a showdown between two Republican candidates; when Christy Smith decided to run for CA-25, the AD-38 race became up for grabs. Like it or not, CA-25 is a purple district. It isn’t deep red anymore, but the odds of it going true blue aren’t that high.
There was a fantastic comment online from a longtime political consultant about the CA-25 race that I had never thought about before, and now I can’t get it out of my head. It went “This is the Democrats in CA-25’s worst nightmare: two charismatic Latino Republicans”, referring to Mike Garcia and AD-38 candidate Suzette Martinez-Valladares. Both parties failed to recognize who their real competition was. The Democrats were so fixated on longshot progressive candidate Cenk Uygur that they somehow missed that Mike Garcia was the real threat. Their Hail Mary strategy was to convince everyone to not vote for Steve Knight. Well… it worked, just not the way they intended. And in a truly unforgivable sin, their failure to rein in the number of Democratic candidates in the AD-38 race, resulted in them locking themselves out of Smith’s Safe Democratic seat. They just handed the seat to Martinez-Valladares.
The local GOP side was also guilty of Uygur-mania. They were also myopic enough to ignore Garcia’s potential as a serious candidate until it was almost too late. The first sign that something was changing was when former Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon endorsed Garcia over Knight. Had they spent more time evaluating the lack of voter enthusiasm over Knight and put more firepower behind Garcia’s campaign, they could feel considerably more confident about their chances to flip the seat. Complacency and loyalty to Knight cost the Republicans dearly in 2018. Have they learned their lesson in 2020?
While most of the state of California is grateful for the increased surveillance and state lockdown, many of the residents in CA-25 are chafing under extreme restrictions. Small business owners are worried that they are headed towards insolvency, homeowners still have mortgages to worry about, and a significant percentage of residents aren’t going to be eligible for the stimulus check or for many state benefits. Gig workers and contractors are held hostage by AB5. And there aren’t many ways to campaign that don’t involve human contact.
Mike Garcia has increased his social media interactions and held multiple virtual town halls. Smith has stayed in touch with voters via text messages from campaign volunteers. Both candidates did an admirable job getting their bases energized prior to Super Tuesday. Ballots were mailed to all voters on April 13, and ballot return rate by party will be an interesting data point to study for the future.
Even ardent supporters of the President have taken issue with how poorly the coronavirus pandemic has been managed on a federal level. Garcia has expressed admiration for Trump in the past, but his success in California may depend on how well he can distance himself from the Trump administration while not completely alienating the hardcore Trump supporters in the Republican Party. It’s a delicate balance, and if the Democrats needed an opportunity to take Garcia’s campaign down a peg or two, now would be a good time to run attack ads that paint Garcia as just another pawn of Trump’s. The Trump effect may not even be a factor in the special, but it absolutely will be in November.
As much as I’ve tried to run the numbers, I can’t justify a lean one way or the other. Smith had a huge advantage going into Super Tuesday, but that advantage was squandered. The Democratic turnout wasn’t nearly what it could have been. If even half of the voters who supported Steve Knight vote for Mike Garcia, the runoff could result in a statistical tie. The GOP does have a historical advantage when it comes to special and runoff election turnouts. The Democrats have a slightly better Vote by Mail return rate in Los Angeles County, the GOP has the VBM advantage in Ventura County. This truly is anybody’s election.
My rating: Toss-up/Tilt R