Is the California special election a bellwether of things to come? The GOP hopes so

Cory Gardner, Martha McSally and House Republicans should feel better today than they did yesterday

Republicans like Arizona Sen. Martha McSally may be feeling better about their competitive races in November after the special election in California’s 25th District, Winston writes.  (Shawn Thew/EPA/Pool)
Republicans like Arizona Sen. Martha McSally may be feeling better about their competitive races in November after the special election in California’s 25th District, Winston writes. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Pool)
Posted May 14, 2020 at 6:00am

It’s morning again in America for the GOP, or at least in California today. The hard-fought special election for the state’s 25th District ended Wednesday when Democrat Christy Smith conceded the race to Republican Mike Garcia. Republicans have managed to flip a blue seat in California for the first time since 1998 — the year Google was founded and “Seinfeld” ended. 

There is no sugarcoating what the loss means for Democrats, especially as they roll out their controversial $3 trillion COVID-19 bailout in the House this week. The timing couldn’t be worse for them.

It’s also big news because the race between the Democratic state assemblywoman and the retired Navy pilot was the Democrats’ to lose. The party has a 7 percent registration advantage in this district — roughly 28,000 voters. Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans make up around 48 percent of the district’s voting-age population, with Latinos the second-largest demographic group in the district.

Hillary Clinton won this suburban Los Angeles district by 7 points in 2016. Former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, whose scandal-driven resignation set the special election in motion, won the seat by 9 points in 2018. On paper, the political dynamics of this district clearly favored Democrats.

As the counting continues, Garcia had a 12-point lead over Smith, 56 percent to 44 percent, on Wednesday, with 81 percent of precincts reporting. If it holds, that’s an astonishing margin that portends well for the rematch to come this fall and for the Republican Party overall.  

Go bigger

Until now, the GOP’s House strategy for November has focused on the 30 Democratic-held seats that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Now, Republicans have a green light to go bigger strategically with an expanded list of competitive districts — districts that Trump didn’t win but where a Republican candidate with the right résumé and skills just might.

Even if the final result turns out to be closer, the fact that a Republican could perform at this level in what amounts to a Democratic district will likely worry national Democrats, regardless of their public spin. Whatever the outcome, it will generate a lot of questions for both parties and the need for a deep dive into exactly what happened and why. 

Was the election a “microcosm of the country’s politics amid the health crisis” and “an early test of Mr. Trump’s sway,” as The New York Times posited in a recent story? In the months leading up to the special election, Democrats had certainly tried to make it a referendum on Trump, though I suspect that narrative will likely change with Garcia’s win. Another question to ask is how much of an impact the Katie Hill scandal had, if any, on the final tally?

Or was this race more about the two candidates themselves?  Garcia was seen as an exceptional candidate, with an outstanding military background, albeit a newcomer to politics. Smith, a longtime Democratic politician, represents a state Assembly district which covers a good portion of the 25th District. That should have given her a major advantage, but stumbles on the campaign trail may have cost her support. 

Her personal attacks on Garcia’s credentials, implying that his military service to the country somehow made him unprepared for the role of congressman, were widely criticized. In one call to her supporters, she was dismissive of Garcia’s use of photos in campaign materials that featured the retired pilot in front of jets, while she boasted that her photos featured “constitutional law books.” Making light of military service — not a good move.

A new reality

But in doing a post-mortem on this important race, we also need to understand how the pandemic affected voters’ decision-making. And whether Congress’ actions over the past two months to address the economic devastation brought on by the virus affected the outcome. The answers to those questions certainly have macro implications for the fall elections that would likely lead to some strategic rethinking on both sides. It’s hard to imagine that the country’s devastating health and economic environment won’t seriously change the political calculus in the months ahead. 

For Republicans, the win in this special election is a positive sign because it means the party may be able to expand the playing field beyond the 30 Trump districts that voted blue in 2018. To regain the House majority, the GOP likely needs to win 20 of the 30 seats lost two years ago. 

Mike Garcia exceeded expectations as a candidate. So did the party in a diverse district in one of the most difficult states for Republicans. It’s clear that Republicans overperformed in California on Tuesday and that means winning 20 House seats in November isn’t outside the realm of possibility. 

In the New York Times story I referenced earlier, reporter Jennifer Medina wrote that this special election would “serve as an important early test for both parties ahead of the fall.” If she’s right, and I think she probably is, this is also good news for Republican hopes of holding the Senate this year. 

A lot can change between now and November.  Who thought three months ago that a pandemic would take down the strongest economy in our history? But if the results in California’s 25th District mean anything, Cory Gardner, Martha McSally and the House GOP should feel better today than they did yesterday. 

The California result is a needed positive for Republicans.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.