If anybody had told me last year that a special election in Southern California would be my main topic of conversation for a six month period, and I’d have accurately predicted 90% of the events leading up to the special election, I’d probably have asked them what kind of acid they dropped, and if they brought enough to share. Personally, I would like this circus to end. CA-25 has alienated me from my family, my dog, my sanity, and most of Election Twitter – and I haven’t even lived in the district since 2013. Serves me right for predicting the future. At least after this election, there’s a six month break.
On Tuesday May 12, CA Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-CA 38) and former Naval pilot/ businessman Mike Garcia (R) face off in the sequel to a contentious March special primary, and the special runoff election for California’s 25th Congressional District will be caught in the political crosshairs. The prize is the heavily targeted seat of CA-25, encompassing northern Los Angeles County and a small southeastern chunk of Ventura County. Most of the district is considered unincorporated county land, with the notable exceptions of City of Santa Clarita, City of Palmdale, City of Lancaster, City of Los Angeles, and City of Simi Valley. For those unfamiliar with how politics work in the district, it was a totally reasonable assumption that the local political scene had been changed, and CA-25 was the final jewel in the crown of Democrat-controlled Southern California Congressional districts.
Since November 2019, CA-25 has had zero federal representation, and the timing could not have been worse: COVID-19 hit Los Angeles County like a freight train around the time CA switched from their traditional June primary election to a new spot in the March Super Tuesday primary, and threw just about every aspect of voting and campaigning into a tailspin. The voters in the district have not been shy about their frustration with the media, the candidates, the decisions made by Governor Gavin Newsom and the county Registrar-Recorder’s office. Apparently if you want to make the magical ballot fairies laugh, tell them your plans for the CA-25 special election. Anything can happen in this race.
R/D Stats: What The Democrats and GOP Can Learn From The Numbers So Far
Even after 2018 and the blue wave, the turnout numbers in this election have proven that the Republicans won’t be going extinct anytime soon. As of Monday, Mike Garcia holds a 10,000 vote lead (D return 42,073/R return 52,638) over Christy Smith in a district where the Democrats have a three point registration advantage. (D 164,993/R-135,342). As much as the national GOP decries the potential for mischief in all Vote By Mail elections, mail ballots have been very good to the Republicans of CA-25. Older voters over 65 in both counties have been returning their ballots at a dizzying rate and are closing in on 50% turnout for the special. Younger Boomers and Gen X voters in between age 50 and 65 are making a respectable showing as well with 32% of voters returning their VBM ballot. Sadly, the youth vote doesn’t seem to be much of a factor this year. Millennial and Gen Z voters aged 18-34 are either indifferent to the special election or they’re all going to vote at the last possible second. Clearly “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” isn’t working as a viable GOTV strategy, and only 17 percent of that age group has returned their ballot.
Here’s a breakdown of the return rates for each age group:
Over 65: 86,256 ballots mailed/42,209 ballots returned (49%)
50-65: 126,576 ballots mailed/40,429 ballots returned. (32%)
35-49: 98,573 ballots mailed/18,187 ballots returned. (19%)
18-34: 113,655 ballots mailed/16,493 ballots returned. (15%)
CA-25 was originally the ultimate white flight destination for middle class voters desperate to leave the City of Los Angeles. And even though it’s become more diverse, you could add up all registered Latino voters, African American voters, and Asian American voters in the district, and there would still be 78,454 more white voters than non-white. Unsurprisingly, white voters have the edge in terms of total voter population (271,458 voters) and in ballot return rates (90,249 ballots returned, or 33%).
What has been enlightening is the turnout rate for Asian American voters. Adjusting for population, they have the second highest ballot return rate overall (27%). In the precincts controlled by the City of Los Angeles (Chatsworth, Canoga Park, Northridge) they make up the largest population of non-white voters, and if both parties are looking ahead, concentrating voter outreach in the AAPI communities of the 25th District could pay off down the line. Stevenson Ranch and Saugus have both seen a sharp increase in the AAPI population, as has the City of Lancaster.
Nationwide, Democrats cannot win without the support of African American voters. In CA-25, that maxim depends on what part of the district you’re in. African American voters comprise 3-5% of the district’s overall voter population, and more than 2/3 call the Antelope Valley home: The City of Lancaster is 21.2% African American (up 22.3% from the 2010 census), to the south, the city of Palmdale is 12.3% African American. Simi Valley boasts the highest Ballot return rate: 44% of voters. Ballot return rates have gained at a slow but consistent rate over the 4 weeks leading to the election in each of the five incorporated cities and unincorporated parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.
Latino/Hispanic voters are undisputedly the largest share of minority voters, and the biggest mistake many political consultants and pollsters make is assuming they vote as a monolithic bloc. Only 16% of Latino voters have returned their ballot as of Monday morning overall. Looking at the city level returns, they range from a low 12% return rate in Palmdale and Lancaster, to a high of 29% ballots returned in the city of Simi Valley. To my knowledge there haven’t been any public polls asking Latino voters whether or not they were likely to vote, how they perceive the candidates, or if in-person voting was preferable to voting by mail. Outreach to the Latino community doesn’t seem as aggressive as it was in 2018, COVID-19 may explain part of the muted recruitment effort in 2020. Or maybe the voters just aren’t thrilled about either Smith or Garcia. The Hispanic Democratic Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus don’t seem to be boosting Smith’s popularity with voters, but Garcia hasn’t fared that much better among Latinos in CA-25. This group may be decided by in-person turnout.
Veni, Vedi, Ventura: VBM Voters Exceed Turnout Expectations, Again
The highest ballot return rate for all of the age groups: City of Simi Valley (even the lowest Millennial turnout is at 25%, and voters over age 65 have a 64% return rate. Black and Latino voters have the highest return percentage in the Simi Valley portion of the district. Over 50% of Republicans have voted, and the 8 point lead they have over the Democrats isn’t insurmountable. Simi is a white, GOP dominated city, in a predominantly white, GOP-led county, yet contrary to the national Republican crusade against voting by mail, Ventura County has a well-oiled VBM system and they consistently have high turnout elections where GOP candidates win. In 2018, Steve Knight actually beat Katie Hill’s vote total in Ventura County, even with Hill’s main campaign headquarters based there. Smith and Garcia spent a lot of time fundraising here prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be interesting to see if the voters who backed Knight in 2018 will show up for Garcia in 2020.
Zen And The Art of Voter Roll Maintenance
Getting a straight answer from Ventura County about how many ballots were issued and how many voters are currently registered there was easy. Then again, they’re used to all VBM elections, and there are only about 73,204 ballots to worry about. Getting a straight answer from Los Angeles County about exactly how many ballots were sent out, and their total of active registered voters was not unlike pulling teeth. The special election presented significant logistical challenges at mass scale, with very little notice the election offices. While the county states that just over 350,000 ballots were mailed out, many voters never received their ballot, received more than one ballot, or received a ballot intended for someone else. When I started researching precinct level returns on the County Registrar-Recorder’s site, I was very surprised to find my name on two separate voter lists, one at an address I hadn’t lived at in 15 years, the other to an address I hadn’t lived at since 2013. Two ballots were issued, and I hope they get sent back to the “Undeliverable” bin back at the Election office.
In 2014, the Election Integrity Project found enough evidence to indicate that over 8,000 voters may have duplicate registrations in Los Angeles County, and it is extremely difficult to remove voters on the voter list once they’re in the system. Successful Vote By Mail elections depend on accurate voter rolls. No maintenance is just as bad as mass purges, and I’m hoping at some point the county can find a happy medium.
Is Lancaster Haunted By Dead Registrations?
In the midst of perusing voter files, it became clear that the City of Lancaster has some gigantic voting precincts, some in excess of 5,000 voters. On average, a Lancaster precinct houses around 4,000 voters. Yet when I checked the fantastic Political Data Inc. election tracking tool, there was a large discrepancy between the total of all Lancaster voters listed in my county and the actual number of ballots that were mailed to voters. Adding up just the Lancaster totals, there are 85,395 voters. Yet PDI’s tracker shows that the entire number of ballots sent to the voters in Lancaster is 48,442. That’s a difference of 36,953 voters. In some precincts, there were as many as 1600 voters on the “Not Voted” list. No other city in the district has that consistently high of a ratio of total voters to inactive voters, and that’s after inspecting 252 precincts worth of voter information from five cities and areas of two unincorporated counties. Where did these voters go? Is there a good explanation for over 36,000 ghost voters, such as expired registrations, a mass exodus? Are the voters trapped on a list because funding and resources are allocated based on population rather than means testing? Will these voters show up to cast provisional ballots on Election Day? Lancaster has the lowest turnout of the special election so far. If nobody has asked about the oddities in the city, now might be a good time to start. There’s just too many ways things could go wrong, and in the end, the voters are who pay for it.
How To Overplay The Upper Hand: A Democratic Tragedy in Three Acts
My initial Toss Up call for CA-25 was published in late December. There was no scientific basis behind the initial prediction. Veteran pollsters had a pretty good reason for rating Likely D. In cities like Lancaster and Palmdale there are twice to three times as many registered Democrats as there are Republicans, and the other cities had voted for Katie Hill and Christy Smith in 2018, which shell-shocked the GOP. The media wasn’t covering the Republicans much, if at all, throughout 2019 and 2020.
The Democrats got complacent awfully fast, for a party that hadn’t held a Congressional seat since the Reagan administration. Of course, Katie Hill proved to be a bombshell for far more than just her looks or surprise upset victory. If the rumors are true that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quietly encouraged Hill to step down, that might have been one of the most short-sighted political chess moves in California’s political history. I do believe that Hill would have survived the House Ethics investigation, and I’m almost 100% certain that had she stuck it out until the next election, she would have probably been reelected. Leaving her constituents without any federal representation for six months after so many people gave blood, sweat, and tears to get her elected, looks a lot worse in the eyes of voters than nude photos, or a relatively minor allegation of an ethics violation would have. Katie Hill had the ultimate gift that could be bestowed upon a politician: She was able to get voters to show up for Katie Hill. She got voters fired up and excited to vote.
The Democratic Party is currently so excited about Christy Smith that she’s referred to in an internal email as “the candidate”. Not “Christy Smith” or “Our Assemblywoman”, just “the candidate”. If her own party can’t even pretend to get excited about Smith’s campaign, why should the party expect voters to be excited? At least Mike Garcia knows that the NRCC and the President are excited enough about his chances that they’re willing to humiliate themselves in public if it gets Garcia free media coverage.
A Comedy of Unforced Errors
Sometimes candidates just make the wrong mistake. Christy Smith learned this the hard way, thanks to a Zoom call where she ridiculed Mike Garcia’s qualifications for office. The footage was leaked, and there really was no good way to spin this video. CA-25 has the second highest population of retired military personnel and law enforcement, and the NRCC’s communication team seized the opportunity. Suddenly Mike Garcia was higher in SEO rankings than Christy Smith. Smith did apologize…sort of. It took multiple days, and was noncommittal at best. The court of public opinion made up their minds quickly, and the Republican lead in ballot returns shot up and has increased each day since then.
The endorsement from Barbara Boxer just prolonged the misery. Eventually, it was deleted by the former senator. Hillary Clinton’s endorsement just rang hollow, and former President Barack Obama’s endorsements came too late to make a huge difference. Also, CA-25 still hasn’t forgiven Obama for the ACA or the economic collapse that caused many people to lose their one appreciable asset: their house. In 2012, CA-25 went for Mitt Romney. As it stands, the greatest boost to Smith was the endorsement from Representative Katie Porter, who is white hot right now. The ad from Katie Hill’s HERTime PAC doesn’t actually count as an endorsement, because campaign finance rules forbade Hill from endorsing a specific candidate.
As for Mike Garcia, even if he stays out of trouble, there isn’t a single thing he could do to make the President be quiet and stop stirring the Election fraud pot. Trump endorsements are a double edged sword, and the focus has been taken from Garcia when he needs it most. Yes, it’s publicity, but I do think it could hurt Garcia heading into tomorrow.
Good Intentions, Bad Timing, Unclear Motives
Last Friday at 4:27 pm, Los Angeles County announced that an in-person voting location was being added to Lancaster fo, which hadn’t been allocated one weeks ago. While a polling place was needed there, many people noticed just how terrible the timing of the announcement was. California, along with many Democrats, have spent the past 3 months demanding an end to in-person voting and switching to safer vote by mail. All of a sudden, the local party forces the issue and now there’s a polling place in Lancaster, with a clear Democratic registration advantage (even without the ghost voters who haunt the polling places). So far, turnout has been slow, but the state ended a lockdown mere days ago, and most voters think the shelter in place order ended too soon. Voter suppression is bad, but voters risking the threat of coronavirus and possibly dying a miserable and lonely death seems worse.
The President has turned a public health issue into a three ring media circus with voter fraud as the ringmaster. Garcia hasn’t distanced himself or publicly denounced Trump’s gleeful election misinformation. Is he strong enough to stand up to the President if it’s absolutely necessary?
Christy Smith spent weeks exhorting voters to stay home in order to protect healthcare workers-and now states that in-person voting is magically ok. Democrats have made no secret about the party’s reliance on provisional ballots issued at majority minority precincts. Why doesn’t her camp think she could win without depending on provisional ballots as a backup?
My Rating: Toss Up/Lean R
Ballots that are mailed must be back to the election office no later than 8 pm on Friday, May 15, 2020. They must be postmarked by Tuesday, May 12.