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Katie Hill’s exit shakes up competitive race in Southern California

Expensive special election in Los Angeles TV market would face both parties

California Democratic Rep. Katie Hill has said she plans to resign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Democratic Rep. Katie Hill has said she plans to resign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic Rep. Katie Hill’s decision to resign amid allegations of an improper relationship with her staffer has upended the battle to control a competitive district in Southern California.

Republicans believe they can win the 25th District back, especially now that they don’t have to face Hill and her sizable war chest, which was already at $1.5 million on Sept. 30. But Democrats contend that the district will stay in their hands, citing partisan dynamics and demographics of the district.

It’s unclear when exactly Hill will resign, which has cast a layer of uncertainty into the race. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom can’t call for a special election until after the vacancy takes effect. But both parties are gearing up for a competitive — and expensive — battle.

Moving left? 

The 25th District north of Los Angeles, which includes former President Ronald Reagan’s presidential library, had long been GOP territory. But Hill defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Knight by 9 points in 2018, and Hillary Clinton carried the district by 7 points in 2016. Republicans have been in decline throughout California, and the GOP lost seven House seats in 2018, including the 25th District.

The partisan dynamics of the district and the national environment appear to favor Democrats, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales is keeping the 25th District rating at Likely Democrat despite Hill’s impending resignation. 

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More than 36 percent of voters are registered Democrats, while nearly 32 percent are registered Republicans. Nearly 32 percent of eligible voters are Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.

Multiple California operatives speculated Monday that Newsom would schedule the special primary election for March 3, when a primary for multiple offices, including the Democratic presidential nomination, is already scheduled and could boost Democratic turnout across the state.

California law says that a candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote in a special election primary wins the office outright. If no candidate gets above 50 percent, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would face each other in a special general election in May for the remainder of Hill’s term, which runs through January 2021.

There will also be a primary on March 3 for the two-year term for the 25th District that starts in January 2021, which will be run under slightly different rules that allow the top two vote-getters, regardless of how much the winner gets, to advance to the November general election. 

That means candidates looking to get into the race now could have to run simultaneously in two elections in March, one in May and another in November.

Strategists in both parties said that given the expected cost, there will be pressure to coalesce around a single candidate on each side to focus resources. The fields are still shaking out, they said. 

On the Democratic side, Assemblywoman Christy Smith announced Monday that she would jump into the race. She represents roughly 60 percent of the 25th District already and won her Assembly race in 2018 after losing in 2016.

One potential Democratic candidate is California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who one Democratic source said could clear a primary field. Other potential Democratic candidates include state Sen. Henry Stern, Virgin Galatic executive George Whitesides and attorney Bryan Caforio, who ran unsuccessfully against Knight in 2016 and lost the 2018 primary to Hill. Caforio has been fielding calls from activists and labor leaders in the district, according to one source, and is listening to those asking him to run.

It’s not clear how much outside groups are willing to engage in a special election primary. EMILY’s List, which supports women candidates who back abortion rights, has endorsed Smith in the past. Latino Victory Fund president Mayra Macías said in a statement that the 25th District race “presents a prime opportunity for Latino Victory Fund to recruit a strong and viable Latino candidate.”

A pricey election ahead

Republicans believe they do have a better shot at winning the district in an open seat race.

“I think it’s by and large good news for Republicans,” California GOP consultant John Thomas said of Hill’s resignation. “The biggest problem Republicans had is that Katie Hill was a fundraising juggernaut.”

Hill spent more than three times as much as Knight in 2018 and her campaign had more than $1.5 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. But even without Hill on the ballot, the underlying dynamics of the district could still make the race difficult for the GOP.

“It can be done, but it requires the right mix, the right cocktail, of candidate,” said Thomas, who noted President Donald Trump is not popular in the district. Thomas said the “right kind of Republican” to run there would be someone who is center-right, and fiscally conservative while more moderate on social issues.

Knight wrote in a Facebook post Sunday night that he is “looking to run” in the district. Two Republicans who had already jumped in the race to take on Hill — Navy veteran Mike Garcia and Lancaster City Councilmember Angela Underwood-Jacobs — are both planning to run in the special election and the regular election for the district, according to their campaigns.

The challenge for candidates of both parties is that the special election will likely be expensive, with some operatives saying candidates will need to raise several million dollars for the special election primary alone. The entire district sits in the pricey Los Angeles media market, according to Daily Kos Elections.

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