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Potential ballot confusion complicates California special election for Katie Hill’s seat

Voting starts Feb. 3, but there are two elections for the 25th District on the ballot

California Rep. Katie Hill resigned from Congress amid allegations of improper relationships with staffers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Katie Hill resigned from Congress amid allegations of improper relationships with staffers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An unusual message will soon hit mailboxes and social media feeds in former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill’s Southern California district: “For once in your life, vote twice!”

The tagline will be featured in mailers and a digital media campaign from Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a Democrat running in the special election to replace Hill in the 25th District. The message underscores concerns that voters may be confused by multiple elections for the same office on the same day, March 3.

There will be two votes: a special election to fill the remainder of Hill’s term; and a regular primary for nominees for the next full term, which starts next January. The two elections are happening on the same day as other California primaries, including the presidential primary.

For the special election primary, a candidate who gets an outright majority will head to Washington. But if no one gets a majority, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to a May 12 runoff. That’s what campaign operatives in both parties expect will happen, since 13 candidates are running.

Voters can begin to mail in ballots on Feb. 3, so candidates not only have to compete with the presidential race for attention, they have to educate voters about the unusual elections in a short period of time.

Democratic activists and some candidates are mostly concerned about confusion over two elections for the same district. But there is also worry about a new digital voting system that prompts voters to click through multiple screens to view all of the candidates.

“If you thought the butterfly ballot was bad, I mean, when people don’t know there’s a second page of candidates, that’s a potential disaster,” said Democrat Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks” talk show, who is running in both the special and regular elections.

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Breaking through

Smith said in a phone interview that it has been difficult to capture voters’ attention.

“We’re kind of behind the scenes,” she said.

That won’t get easier in coming weeks, when candidates in the 25th District elections launch TV ads in the expensive Los Angeles media market as presidential candidates seeking California’s mother lode of delegates saturate the airwaves.

Uygur, who is leveraging his national profile in the race, said he was also concerned about voter confusion, but “I don’t know what we’re going to do about it.”

Members of the Indivisible group for Simi Valley and Porter Ranch, which has endorsed Smith, have been writing postcards to voters, reminding them to vote twice in the 25th District, according to Leann Brand, one of the group’s leaders. Brand is concerned voters will select candidates in one election but not the other.

“If that happens, that’s a mess,” she said.

Two sources familiar with the race said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is expected to help with field organizing, focusing specifically on voter education about the complex election. The DCCC has had a presence in the district since March 2019 and will ramp that up ahead of the special election, one party strategist said. The committee is conducting early research on how best to explain, in both English and Spanish, that voters must make a choice in both elections.

A six-week battle

Though not guaranteed by California’s top-two primary system, operatives in both parties expect one Democrat and one Republican to advance to the May runoff. DCCC officials said last week they were not concerned the upcoming six-week battle could result in Republicans taking both spots. 

Former Republican Rep. Steve Knight, whom Hill unseated by 9 points in 2018, could have the name recognition that gives him an advantage in the compressed election. Knight has the backing of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but the Los Angeles County GOP endorsed Navy veteran Mike Garcia.

Garcia was already running against Hill when she announced her resignation in October amid allegations of improper relationships with staffers. Knight jumped in after that, and his late entry and 2018 loss have stoked some resentment among Republicans. It’s unclear, however, if that will be enough to keep him from making the May runoff. 

The Democrat who advances is expected to have an advantage, especially considering Republicans haven’t flipped a House seat in California since 1998. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 7 points in 2016, and the highest share of voters there, nearly 38 percent, are registered Democrats. Thirty-one percent are registered Republicans, while 25 percent are not registered with any party.  Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

Smith, a centrist whose Assembly district covers 60 percent of the House seat, has the backing of national groups, several members of the California congressional delegation and local activists, including Indivisible groups.

“She knows all of the problems that are happening in our district that need fixing,” said Brand, the Indivisible leader. “All the other candidates are from outside our district, and they just want to get into Congress because they think they know better.”

Smith has stressed her roots in the community and said her first TV ad will focus on health care. Citing union members who want to keep the benefits they’ve negotiated, Smith supports adding a public option to the private insurance offered under the 2010 health care law rather than creating a single-payer system.

Uygur, her chief Democratic opponent, lives outside the district in West Los Angeles. He said he is looking to move into the 25th District after the school year.

Uygur acknowledged that some criticism of his decision to run in a district where he doesn’t live is out of genuine concern about whether he cares about the community. But he said he has proved he does care by campaigning in the district, and continued criticism, particularly from Democratic leaders, “verges on xenophobia.”

Uygur supports “Medicare for All,” or a single-payer health care system. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who authored the Medicare for All bill in the Senate, initially endorsed Uygur in the race. But the presidential hopeful retracted the endorsement after pushback over Uygur’s past controversial comments. Several videos of Uygur have surfaced from his “Young Turks” show in which he speaks crudely about women’s appearances and criticizes orthodox Muslims and Jews.

Asked if he regrets the comments from his show, Uygur said, “I’m not going to get into every single video. OK, by the way, I’ve got 12,000 hours of video online. … [The] overwhelming majority is massively progressive.”

A central theme of Uygur’s campaign is money in politics, and he has criticized Smith for receiving campaign donations, mainly to her Assembly campaign, from various industries. Smith has not rejected corporate PAC donations, breaking with the majority of House Democrats who flipped seats in 2018.

Smith said she supports a campaign finance overhaul and would sign on to HR 1, a sweeping revision crafted by House Democrats last year. But she said, “I am determined to fight within the system as it is set up to make sure that we hold this seat.”

Both Smith and Uygur reported similar fundraising numbers for the last quarter of 2019. Smith raised $840,000 to Uygur’s $796,000. Uygur said his campaign is “people-powered,” touting roughly 2,200 volunteers from California and across the country. He said “hundreds” of volunteers are from the district itself. So far, Democrats supporting Smith don’t view Uygur as a threat, suggesting he is not well-known in the district.

Uygur, though, told HuffPost the Democratic contest is “Hillary vs. Bernie 2.0,” likening the race to the hotly contested 2016 presidential primary. Clinton carried the district in the 2016 primary by 4 points, with nearly 52 percent of the vote, but Uygur said, “I’m not overly worried about that.”

Simone Pathé contributed to this report.

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