It is common knowledge that most people extrapolate too much from special election. Special elections are special for a reason, and weird things happen in them all the time, but that doesn’t mean that parties can’t take those results and create a new strategy surrounding those results. The results from the special in California’s 25th, which saw Republican Mike Garcia prevail by around 10 percentage points, shows a new strategy emerging for the GOP. One that could allow them to be more competitive across the Southwest.
A district struck by scandal
California’s 25th district is not one the GOP should have won back. While it is a historically Republican district, results from 2016 and 2018 should have been the sign that the GOP would likely have to fight tooth and nail to even be competitive in this district for future elections. Hillary Clinton won this district by seven points and former representative Katie Hill flipped this seat by nine points against incumbent Steve Knight in the midterms. The 25th seemed lost to the GOP.
Then scandal struck Katie Hill. Revenge porn was published through a political blog site with a story attached. The story was that Hill was sleeping with congressional staffers, which is a big no-no in the House. Whether you agree with her decision or not, Hill decided to step down. Democrats did not think this special would be an issue. They had Hill’s hand-selected replacement in Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who flipped her seat in 2018. Plus, former representative Steve Knight was running again on the GOP side. Knight was hugely unpopular by the time he lost and he would be the perfect foil against Smith.
The surprise unknown
That isn’t how it turned out though. Knight was not the only legitimate GOP contender in the race, as former Naval pilot and current defense contractor Mike Garcia was already running for the seat. Garcia, who is from the district and is also Latino, was able to jump into the second spot for the all party primary. His surprisingly strong fundraising and a better message to the district compared to Knight’s made him the GOP favorite. While not concerning to the Democrats yet, Mike Garcia would possibly be harder to deal with than Knight since he was an unknown.
Democrats and Hill were able to capitalize on Knight’s vote to dismantle the ACA in the 2018 midterms. That sunk Knight before he could even swim in the race and lead to his dismal nine point loss as an incumbent. In fact, it almost seemed like the roles were switched in this election. The Democrats were now putting up the known candidate, who had her own votes to defend, while the GOP were putting up a local, yet unknown candidate who seemed to be in tune with key parts of the district. Garcia had given the GOP a sliver of hope in a district that seemed lost.
How it played out
The next two months were something to watch. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world, the election would be all vote-by-mail. Every person in the 25th would get a ballot mailed to their house that they had to have postmarked by Election Day, the 12th of May.
Smith and Garcia began to be locked into a tight race. Garcia had been surprisingly apt at fundraising, keeping pace with Smith’s numbers. This was another difference compared to 2018, as Hill routinely outraised Steve Knight by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then Smith made a pretty major unforced error. Smith was caught live on a Zoom conference seemingly making fun of Garcia’s past as a Navy Pilot. In a district where there are many veterans, this became a crucial mistake.
Many will admit that Garcia had seemed to pull ahead in the final two weeks. His ability to stay above the fray, as well as Smith’s unforced error, may put him ahead. Everyone though was expecting another long counting process as is typical with close California house elections. Instead we got a stunner. By the end of the first ballot dump, Garcia was ahead by nearly twelve points and after the final dump in Ventura only expanded his lead, Smith conceded the special election.
What can the GOP learn from this?
As a Republican, Garcia’s victory felt like vindication. Finally we were no longer relying on has-beens and old, white county commissioners. Instead we flipped our first seat in California since 1998 and a new path forward was revealed for Republicans in seats made up like CA-25.
It is no secret that the GOP has struggled across the American Southwest for the past decade. While there were some successes, the big one being Susana Martinez’s election as New Mexico’s governor in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, it has mostly been filled with stagnation or failure. In Colorado, the GOP failed to take down Michael Bennett twice and failed to take the Governor’s mansion at all during this decade. Arizona has only gotten more blue in the past decade, and there have been struggles in Texas as well. The way the GOP used to recruit and run campaigns does not work anymore.
The way Mike Garcia ran and won his race shows the next path forward for these states. Texas’s GOP was the only one seemingly trying to take steps post 2018, looking at Greg Abbott’s victory as the way to do things rather than keep it Ted Cruz’s way. In California, the aftermath of the special will hopefully show California’s GOP the way towards weakening Democrats majorities in the state.
Meanwhile states like Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all still have work to do. Arizona especially needs to change their ways and also should probably get rid of Kelli Ward as chairwoman. Candidates like Garcia can work across the nation. Ones who are local, have the right message and also aren’t all old white men. They don’t need to have experience necessarily either – Garcia didn’t – and he beat the ones who did in Steve Knight and Cristy Smith. There are many other Mike Garcias out there in America and the GOP needs to find them. It is their path to victory not just across the Southwest, but across America as well for the future. It’s time for a change in the way the party does things and the results of this special should be the catalyst.