Previously on The CA-25 Diaries:
Me, to our Editor-In-Chief: “Can I move my CA-25 rating back to Toss-up?”
Editor: “No. Keep it the way you had it until we know more.”
Me: “My original rating was Toss-up, wasn’t it?”
5 weeks later and the race has still not been called. The greatest political analysts in America are exercising a level of restraint heretofore unseen in predictive polling. The lead has changed hands so many times that most of Election Twitter has whiplash.
405 votes. That’s the current number that separates CA-25 special election winner Mike Garcia from his challenger, soon-to-be former Assemblywoman Christy Smith. It’s technically the final uncalled Congressional race in California and it’s been a nail-biter for the last four weeks. There will probably never be another Congressional election cycle as chaotic as the year-long soap opera starring Garcia, Smith, and a colorful cast of state officials, political bloggers and party operatives that turned California’s 25th Congressional District from an obscure chunk of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties that most non-Californians couldn’t find on a map into a primetime political talking point and Election Twitter’s most overhyped pissing match.
At this point, nobody’s even fighting about the results anymore. Including the candidates. It’s safe to say that everyone just wants this race to be finalized, certified and put to bed… at least until the 2022 race brings a rude re-awakening.
Splitting Tickets Along Political Fault Lines
Voters in CA-25 have never been predictable party-line voters in Presidential elections. However, there was allegedly a trend towards straight-ticket voting this year. Allegedly. Once again, voters proved conventional polling wisdom incorrect. CA-25 just has to be different. Looking at the in-person turnout, what shocked me was that if Mike Garcia won the precinct, he consistently garnered more votes than President Trump. Christy Smith could not beat Biden’s numbers even in the precincts where she had the highest number of in-person votes and Biden was the victor.
Keep in mind, CA-25 had a significant +D registration advantage. Garcia (and Trump) ran out of potential Republican voters fairly early. Even if they had 100% Republican turnout, if every registered Democrat had voted for Christy Smith (and Biden), Smith would have won by a decisive margin. That didn’t happen this time, and there’s a few intriguing possibilities that might explain why.
The first is that a significant minority of Democratic voters split their ticket and voted for Garcia and Biden. The second is that Garcia did better with No Party Preference voters in Los Angeles County than projected. Finally, the third is that voters just chose to skip the CA25 race on their ballots. Given that the district voted for Republican Steve Knight and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, the first possibility seems the most likely.
In-Person vs. Vote By Mail
2020 was the first election in California where every registered voter was mailed a Vote By Mail ballot. And judging by the numbers, Ventura County seemed pretty happy with the concept. 88.1 % of the ballots from the Ventura side of CA-25 were cast by mail or returned via drop box. A whopping 94.1% of Christy Smith’s votes in Ventura County were from VBM. Garcia’s VBM returns in Ventura weren’t too shabby either (81.1%), and he still beat Smith’s VBM total by 1,358 votes. In-person turnout for Ventura wasn’t even close; Garcia beat Smith by more than a 3-to-1 margin. Ventura’s completed their count, and they certify on November 30, 2020. Final: 36,559 votes (Garcia) to 30,845 (Smith), or a decisive 54.24% to 45.76% margin.
As of this writing, the Los Angeles County side of CA-25 is still in the tallying process. Countywide, 3.4 million VBM ballots were returned. Over 385,000 voters live on the LA side of the district, so cut the Registrar-Recorder’s office some slack. They’ve got a lot of ballots to wrangle. So far, 138,214 votes (Smith) to 132,905 (Garcia) have been reported. Raw numbers indicate that Smith led the early VBM returns. However, Garcia had a slight in-person advantage during Election Day, especially in the unincorporated areas of LA County. The margin overall is 50.98% to 49.02%.
Most of the time, the candidate who wins the higher population county part of the district ends up winning outright. Not this election. Smith’s 5,309 vote lead in Los Angeles County was effectively canceled out by Garcia’s 5,714 vote lead in Ventura. Clearly, the last-minute canvassing done by the GOP netted a small but valuable gain for Garcia and the other three GOP candidates who came out of nowhere to flip their respective seats from blue to red.
Are Demographics Destiny?
CA-25 remained unusually stable when it came to turnout by age group and racial/ethnic identity. The vast majority of ballots were cast by voters over the age of 50. Over 80% of voters over 65 voted in this election, and so did 75% of voters over 50. Older millenials and Generation X had around a 62% turnout, while the youngest millenials and Gen Z quadrupled their special election numbers and ended up at 51%.
Turnout was up significantly for all racial/ethnic groups compared to the primary or the special election. Asian American/Pacific Islanders had a 72% turnout rate and the highest turnout percentage by any ethnic group. The lowest turnout by percentage was Latino voters, with only 51% turnout. This is still phenomenal compared to the special election. Latino voters do not vote as a monolithic bloc. But considering how large the Latino population in the district actually is, that’s a strong indicator that neither Democrats or Republicans in CA-25 are engaging in successful Spanish-language voter outreach or running candidates who voters can relate to.
Of CA-25’s 10,433 Black voters, more than 60% cast a ballot in this election. That’s up from the number who voted in the special election, particularly in the City of Lancaster, which has the highest percentage of Black voters in the district. Turnout for white voters (who outnumber every other race/ethnicity combined) stayed steady at 70%, and they were the most likely to vote by mail.
Party turnout was up for No Party Preference voters by at least 16%, which was encouraging. More than half voted this election. GOP voters had their strongest numbers in recent memory: 74% of registered Republicans in CA-25 showed up. The Dems had a seven-point advantage heading into the election. However, that advantage began diminishing almost as soon as the first batches of mail ballots were tabulated.
Republicans were energized after the special election win, furious with Governor Gavin Newsom, and feeling the effects of a crashing economy, closed schools, and several new election laws that provided plenty of fuel for heated debates. The two that had an outsized impact on the CA-25 election were authored or co-authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher. California Democrats might be in a better position had she not been quite so prolific with her legislation.
AB306 (19R) amended 2016’s already controversial Assembly Bill 1921, which legalized mass-scale ballot collection by third-party organizations or political campaigns. In hindsight, AB1921 at least made an effort to hold those collecting ballots accountable and document a chain of custody. Amending the bill so that ballots did not require any documentation of third party chain of custody in order to be eligible for adjudication and tabulation was a line in the sand just begging to be stepped across.
The CAGOP spent 2018 complaining about how ballot harvesting gave the Democrats an unfair advantage and sued to ban ballot harvesting prior to the CA025 special election in May 2020. By October 2020, however, the CAGOP reversed course. They decided that not only was ballot harvesting a great idea, so was placing ballot collection boxes in gun shops and places of worship. The first time I heard about it, someone had posted a picture of the makeshift ballot drop box at a church in Santa Clarita on Twitter. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla got wind of it and political fireworks ensued. SOS Padilla ordered a cease and desist and the removal of all GOP-sponsored drop boxes in Los Angeles, Orange, and Fresno counties. Local GOP officials refused, and a lawsuit was filed.
Were these ballot collection boxes legal? Technically, yes, as long as they weren’t being misrepresented as official ballot drop boxes from the county Registrar-Recorder’s office. As it turns out, Congressman Harley Rouda (D-CA-48), one of the most vocal opponents of the GOP drop boxes, had used ballot collection boxes in his own district without any objection from the Secretary of State’s office.
In the end, the GOP agreed to remove the word “official” from their drop boxes. In return, SOS Padilla and CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra agreed to end their demand for a list of the voters who made use of those drop boxes. The suit was officially dropped as of November 20, 2020.
The Election was Never Really about Mike Garcia or Christy Smith
During the May Special Election, I questioned whether or not Donald Trump would have a potentially deleterious effect on the Garcia campaign and how Garcia would address it. Garcia was amazingly adroit at sidestepping this minefield. While he supported Trump when cameras were rolling, it’s unclear how serious he was about that support otherwise. Garcia’s biggest missteps were the failure to support the USPS bill that most of the Republicans refused to vote for anyway and getting a little too complacent about his chances of victory over the fall.
In many respects, he got lucky in November. While incumbent advantage is certainly a factor in his win, it’s not a strategy for the future. CA lost two Congressional seats this cycle, and redistricting is coming. Former Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon survived a severe district redraw. But by then he had more than a decade’s worth of voter goodwill and the GOP was far more relevant statewide. Garcia is brand new, California is bleeding potential conservative voters, and the California Redistricting Commission shows no mercy.
Christy Smith needed more and better support at a much earlier stage from the Democratic Party than she actually received. Yes, money and base support flowed during the final six weeks. But in retrospect, it was a day late and hundreds of thousands of dollars short. Katie Hill received eight million dollars over the course of her 2018 election cycle. Over the summer and early autumn, had Christy Smith even received half the donations, enthusiasm, or effort expended on Katie Hill, she would have arguably been in a much better position heading into the general election. Her mid-October rally was impressive, and she fought incredibly hard at the end.
I owe Christy Smith an apology. Referring to her as a Karen was unfair and unkind of me, and I missed an opportunity to use my Twitter powers for good. She did fantastic work on behalf of the Newhall School District, and barring her support of controversial bill AB5, she served Assembly District 38 well. While I’m hardly the most influential pundit analyzing the CA-25 race, it’s naïve of me to think that I didn’t color the perceptions of some of my readers in a negative way. I wish her success in her next venture, and hope she continues to serve the voters in the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys.
Last Call: Hold R. Garcia holds the seat, unless there’s a Christmas miracle and LA County’s final group of ballots breaks better than 59% for Smith. Smith has not achieved that wide of a margin in any of the ballot drops over the past four weeks. It’s possible, but the late breaking ballot drops have not favored Smith by more than a 50.9/49.1 split and she’s still 405 votes behind.