No, even a GOP win in California does not put the House in play

Republicans underestimate anti-Trump turnout in November

Republican congressional candidate and former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia greets supporters in Simi Valley, Calif., in January. The fight for an open House seat in a swing district north of Los Angeles provides Republicans with a rare opportunity to gain ground in heavily Democratic California.  (Michael Blood/AP file photo)
Republican congressional candidate and former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia greets supporters in Simi Valley, Calif., in January. The fight for an open House seat in a swing district north of Los Angeles provides Republicans with a rare opportunity to gain ground in heavily Democratic California. (Michael Blood/AP file photo)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 5:00am

Tuesday’s race in California’s 25th District is shaping up to be a special election like no other.

According to the usual playbook, the losing party promptly blames their nominee. But that’s a trickier endeavor for Democrats in this race, considering state Assemblywoman Christy Smith is also their nominee for the November election for a full two-year term.

Republicans haven’t picked up a House seat anywhere in California in 20 years, so a GOP win would be remarkable. But it likely would have more to do with a redder electorate caused by unusual timing than a national sea change toward Republicans.

Technically, the partisan balance of power will shift slightly if Republican Mike Garcia wins, but it won’t dramatically improve the GOP’s chances of retaking the House majority in November. That’s because it will be difficult for Republicans to recreate the circumstances taking place in this special election.

Election edge

Garcia, a retired Navy pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq, is widely regarded as the better candidate. Even though Smith represents more than half of the district in the Legislature, she’s made mistakes (including downplaying Garcia’s military service in a video town hall meeting), while Garcia has been able to keep up in fundraising.

In other districts around the country in November, most GOP challengers are facing massive fundraising deficits against well-financed Democratic incumbents, and those Democratic members are less likely to make the mistakes Smith has made.

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If Garcia wins, he will instantly become the most vulnerable Republican in the House. Currently, Republicans don’t hold any district anywhere in the country with a greater Democratic advantage than California’s 25th. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 7 points in 2016, while former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill ousted Republican Rep. Steve Knight by 9 points in 2018.

Democrats admit it has not been easy to turn out low-propensity, nonwhite voters in an election that is not on the regular schedule and comes during the coronavirus crisis. Yet Republicans underestimate President Donald Trump’s ability to turn out Democratic voters in November. The expanded electorate is a big reason why Smith could lose on Tuesday and win in the fall.

It should go without saying that special elections are not necessarily predictors of future results. Remember Republicans won a high-profile special election in Georgia’s 6th District in 2017 and lost 40 seats (including Georgia’s 6th) the following year. Going further back, Democrats won a competitive special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District in May 2010, six months before they lost 63 seats.

If Garcia wins, Republicans will technically need a net gain of 17 seats in November for a majority. In reality, the number of seats the GOP needs to gain is closer to 20 because they are likely to lose two seats in North Carolina because of a new map and Rep. Will Hurd’s open seat in Texas, and they will struggle to reelect Garcia. Win or lose in California’s 25th, Republicans remain long shots to regain control of the House this year.

Blame game

In the short term, Democrats will need someone or something to blame if they lose Tuesday’s special election. In addition to the electorate, they’re more likely to blame Hill, who resigned in October after an inappropriate relationship with a staffer. Most Democrats had hoped she’d just stay away and out of the spotlight, but the former congresswoman paid for her own campaign ad, much to the frustration of Democratic operatives because she’s still a polarizing figure in the district.

California Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith is running against Garcia in both Tuesday’s special election and the general election in November, when the dynamics of the electorate may be different, Gonzales writes. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo)

This special election struggle is not a surprise to Democrats. In January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dispatched two former top aides to assist the Smith campaign, according to Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections. But, heading into Election Day, Smith still had not hit her stride.

Trump has positioned himself to take credit for a Garcia victory after endorsing him a few weeks ago, or to blame a loss on a “rigged election,” according to his recent tweet. Republicans cried foul last week when an in-person voting place was added in Lancaster. It was the only major city without an in-person option (all voters were mailed a ballot as well), and the move was advocated by its Republican mayor who had previously endorsed Garcia.

A Smith victory would be demoralizing for Republicans. Even though it’s not the type of district Republicans have to win for a new majority, they have the better candidate, a strong contrast, and the consistent lead in the polls. To fall short now would be close to a disaster at this point.

The biggest lesson the public can draw from this special election will likely be the need for patience. Because the vast majority of the ballots will be mailed in, and only have to be postmarked by Election Day, it could be days until there’s an official result. In the era of coronavirus and the expansion of vote-by-mail nationwide, that might be the most important foreshadowing for November.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.