Republican Mike Garcia holds double-digit lead in California special election

Ex-pilot vying to retake seat Democrat Katie Hill won in 2018

People vote Sunday in Lancaster, Calif., in the special House election between Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith and Republican Navy veteran Mike Garcia. President Donald Trump objected on Twitter to the decision to set up the in-person voting center. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
People vote Sunday in Lancaster, Calif., in the special House election between Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith and Republican Navy veteran Mike Garcia. President Donald Trump objected on Twitter to the decision to set up the in-person voting center. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 5:41am

The special election in California’s 25th District remained uncalled Wednesday morning, with ballots still being counted in the first competitive partisan election amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Yet Republican Mike Garcia, a retired Navy pilot, said on a call with supporters and reporters late Tuesday that the initial results were “extremely encouraging” and he was hoping to give a victory speech Wednesday at a virtual event on Zoom.

“We did make history this evening,” he said. Republicans have not flipped a House seat in California since 1998.

With 81 percent of precincts reporting, Garcia led Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, 56 percent to 44 percent, but The Associated Press had not declared a winner. The special election for the remainder of former Democratic Rep Katie Hill's term in the Southern California district outside Los Angeles was conducted predominantly by mail, and ballots postmarked Tuesday but received by Friday will be counted.

Earlier Tuesday, a Democratic strategist noted that in 2018, Democrats in California added between 6 and 10 points to their margins as late votes were counted after Election Day. As of 3:40 a.m., however, Garcia led by 12 points.

Smith stressed in a statement Tuesday night that the race remained too early to call, saying it was “critical that every ballot cast is counted and the voice of every CA-25 voter is heard.”

But some Democrats appeared to concede that she was unlikely to prevail, even while looking toward November, when Smith and Garcia face each other again in the race for a full two-year term.

“This fight in CA25 was never going to be over tonight,” Mark Gonzalez, the chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said in a statement Tuesday night. “Trump, Mike Garcia and the Republicans have been put on notice, and they will do whatever they can do defeat Christy in November. There’s too much at stake, and LA Democrats look forward to the challenge ahead with Christy.”

President Donald Trump, who lost the 25th District by 7 points, touted his support for Garcia on Twitter over the weekend and may have stoked GOP turnout by accusing Democrats of trying to “steal” the election with the late addition of an in-person polling site in Lancaster a city with sizable African American and Latino populations.

[No, a GOP win in California doesn't put the House in play]

Hill, who resigned last year amid allegations of improper relationships with staff, captured the seat in 2018 by defeating GOP Rep. Steve Knight by 9 points.

Democrats have more registered voters in the district, but some only turn out in November, while Republicans tend to vote more reliably in every election. As a result, a low-turnout special election in May favored Republicans, campaign operatives in both parties said. 

As ballots continue to be counted, both Smith and Garcia will have to pivot quickly to the fall race, which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales currently rates Likely Democratic

Some Republicans were cheering the initial returns showing Garcia ahead.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer tweeted, “It’s been [a] fun night, but only a prelude to November. #CA25 #WI07.” The second hashtag referred to Tuesday’s other special election, in Wisconsin’s 7th District, where GOP state Sen. Tom Tiffany prevailed in a safe Republican district.