2020 elections

How Did Republicans Win a Special Congressional Election in California?

Mike Garcia, the new, and perhaps very temporary, congressman from the 25th district of California. Photo: Mike Garcia for Congress

Last week California Republicans got a rare bit of good news: Republican Mike Garcia defeated Democrat Christy Smith in a special election in California’s 25th District. Democrat Katie Hill won the district in the 2018 midterms, contributing to Republicans’ net loss of seven U.S. House districts in California. But Hill resigned from Congress last year, giving the GOP its opportunity to flip a California congressional seat for the first time since 1998. Beyond that, Garcia’s win reflects a rare counter-trend in what has been a long-term pro-Democratic shift in much of the state, particularly the Los Angeles suburbs. Statewide, Republicans slipped behind No Party Preference into third place in voter self-identification in 2018, and lost every statewide race.

So how did Garcia do it? Interpretations differ, but here are some like reasons:

1. Turnout in special elections is … special.

With very rare exceptions, turnout for special elections is lower than for regular primaries or general elections. And although the long list of Democratic special election victories since Donald Trump became president may make you forget it, voters in special election are often older and whiter than in other contests, giving Republicans a built-in advantage. The old GOP “special” advantage may have returned in the 25th district, where the partisan breakdown in returned mail ballots (sent to all registered voters due to the coronavirus pandemic) indicates Republicans just showed up more, which may or may not have been attributable to differential COVID-19 fears. In any event, it may not recur in November, when the two candidates have an insta-rematch.

2. Garcia was an unusually good candidate.

Republicans lucked into an unusually strong candidate in Garcia, a former Navy pilot running in a district with a significant defense presence, and a Latino in a district whose electorate has become one-third Latino. He managed to beat the previous Republican holder of the seat, Steve Knight, in the February primary in order to win a Top Two position opposite Smith, which was welcomed by Republican strategists. His campaign was well-financed.

3. Democrats had their issues.

When a special election is forced by an unexpected congressional resignation, there’s often some undertow affecting the party of the resigner. In this case Hill quit over allegations (which she denied) that she had an intimate relationship with a staff member, which brought into the public eye some admitted sexual hijinks and a nasty marital dispute. Her decision to intervene in the special election with an ad featuring her encouraging Democrats to turn out may have been a mixed blessing at best for Smith, and probably did remind voters why they were having a special election to begin with.

But Smith had her own issues, including a snarky reference to Garcia’s military background that didn’t go over well, and identification as a state legislator with a new law aimed at forcing employers to give gig workers employee benefits, which is growing steadily more unpopular. At least one progressive observer thinks Smith’s failure to campaign on popular lefty initiatives like Medicare for All may have undermined Democratic enthusiasm.

4. It was an election for a mini-term leading to a rematch.

There was some talk that Democrats may have pulled their punches in the 25th district because, after all, the special election was for the remainder of Hill’s term and the two candidates will meet again in a more consequential rematch where conditions may favor Smith. Over-confidence probably wasn’t a problem since signs of a Garcia win were abundant going into the election.

Republicans, of course, busily spun the win into a sign of a Republican resurgence in California and possibly an omen that the GOP will retake the House even as Trump cake-walks to a second term on the strength of a rapidly rebounding economy that he championed even as Democrats pursued perpetual shutdowns. While the results may legitimately indicate that there’s no continuing wave from 2018 that will crash with renewed force in favor of Democrats in November, it’s more likely that we are seeing a reversion to the mean rather than some new pro-Republican wave. There are enough special circumstances surrounding Garcia’s win to make its recurrence questionable when he appears on the ballot on Election Day with Donald Trump, who remains as unpopular as ever in California.

There is one wrinkle in Garcia’s special election victory worth a closer look. In 2018 a number of Republican incumbents famously led early on until later-arriving mail ballots swept Democrats into office. There were signs on Election Day that Garcia’s early lead might be durable, as California political observer Miriam Pawel noted:

In recent elections, last-minute votes, by mail and in person, have skewed heavily for Democrats. Not this time. Voters who showed up at the handful of outdoor pop-up polling places voted for the Republican two to one. Some told reporters they voted in person because they did not trust the Postal Service.

Garcia’s sizable election night lead held up early the next day, which is probably why Smith conceded pretty quickly. But five days later, the winner’s lead has eroded from 12 points to under ten points, and will likely continue to do so until the counting is done in another couple of weeks.

In other words, late-count Democratic gains based on an advantage in later-postmarked mail ballots and in votes deemed “provisional” because of some apparent flaw and then counted later is probably still a thing, not only in California but in the many jurisdictions that will be experiencing heavier-than-ever voting by mail in November. Democrats would be smart to train media on this phenomenon and vigorously challenge Republican election night claims of total victory, which could (particularly in the hands of the president) lead to later claims of voter fraud and contested results.

How Did Republicans Win a California Congressional Election?