Corrected 12:50 p.m. | Leanna Brand thought she would spend the final days of the special election in California's 25th District hanging flyers on voters' door handles. But those flyers now sit in boxes in her dining room, constant reminders of how the coronavirus has upended campaigns.
"We’re really flying blind,” said Brand, who leads Indivisible Simi Valley & Porter Ranch, a grassroots group backing Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith against Republican Mike Garcia, a Navy veteran. Next week’s special election for the remainder of former Rep. Katie Hill's term offers a first glimpse of how a competitive election unfolds amid a health crisis that makes in-person campaigning impossible.
Voters have until May 12 to mail in their ballots. As California locked down, Smith and Garcia quickly shifted to tactics familiar to campaigns across the country — filming campaign ads on iPhones, calling and texting voters rather than traveling the district for meetups, and debating over Zoom.
Unlike other congressional hopefuls on the ballot in November, Smith and Garcia will find out in a matter of days how those tactics worked.
Votes typically take a while to count in California because ballots postmarked on Election Day are valid, so it’s possible the winner may not be known on election night. The 25th District race is also taking place almost entirely by mail, so it could take even longer to count ballots, depending on turnout.
In a district in the Los Angeles suburbs that flipped from red to blue in 2018, both parties are watching the election for lessons about virtual campaigning heading into November. But campaign operatives also cautioned not to extrapolate too much from one race in a tumultuous environment.
“I don’t know if this race is the canary in the coal mine,” said Andrew Acosta, a California Democratic strategist who is not involved in the contest. “We don’t know where we’re going to be in a week, let alone two months.”
The pandemic has dominated the final weeks of the race to replace Hill, who resigned last year amid allegations of improper relationships with staff. Roughly two weeks after the March 3 primary, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, forcing the candidates to go virtual.
Neither Smith nor Garcia was available for interviews, but both sent statements about how the pandemic has affected their campaigns. Smith said her campaign has shifted from physical to virtual interactions with voters, using videoconference calls and remote phone banks. Garcia has held virtual town halls, and his campaign has more than 400 volunteers making phone calls.
Grassroots groups also had to shift. Brand’s Indivisible group has been writing postcards, making phone calls and holding virtual rallies over Zoom. But she said they don’t have the same impact as knocking on doors.
“When you’re canvassing and you look somebody in the eye and they say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote for her,’ you believe them. [It’s] hard to believe them when you’re on the phone,” Brand said.
The pandemic has also affected the candidates’ messaging. Smith, like other Democrats, has doubled down on her health care focus.
“The issues that I have run on from the very start of this race have largely stayed the same, and in many ways have only become more urgent,” she said. “Now more than ever, Americans need access to affordable, quality health care, as we see with more clarity that our health care system is only as strong as its weakest links.”
Smith’s closing ad ties Garcia directly to the president. “Donald Trump’s record on coronavirus: delays, dishonesty, failure. And Mike Garcia attacks anyone who doesn’t agree with Trump,” the ad’s narrator says.
Trump lost the district by 7 points in 2016, but the ad is the first by Smith to link Garcia to him. Campaign strategists in both parties expect lower turnout in the special election to favor Republicans, who are more consistent voters. Smith’s closing spot could be a sign that Trump’s popularity is diminishing amid the pandemic.
Garcia, though, has been touting Trump’s endorsement in recent Facebook ads. In a statement, he likened the pandemic’s impact on his campaign to his experience as a fighter pilot.
“Usually by the time we started the jet on the flight deck we were already on plan B,” Garcia said. “Being successful in complex environments requires leaders and teams to anticipate change and react to it correctly.”
He said that after running to cut taxes and support small businesses, he remained “laser-focused on our District.”
Garcia and GOP groups, including the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, have used their ads to attack Smith’s record in the Legislature and on a local school board. The main shift since the pandemic has been the inclusion of references to “these frightening times.”
Since the primary, Garcia has benefited more from outside groups, which have spent a combined $2 million to support him or oppose Smith. Outside groups during the same time spent $1.2 million to boost Smith, with the largest expenditure from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, is not planning to spend in the special election in the pricey Los Angeles media market, according to a source familiar with the group’s thinking. Instead, the group is focused on November, when Smith and Garcia will face off again for a full term.
Turning on turnout
Part of the calculus for HMP is that the May 12 electorate could skew Republican, which was expected even before the pandemic hit. The shift almost entirely to “vote by mail” could exacerbate that dynamic, as Democrats tend to fare better with in-person voting and ballots cast on Election Day.
As of late Monday afternoon, 21 percent of ballots have been returned in the special election, according to Political Data Inc. Thirty-one percent of registered Republicans, 19 percent of Democrats, and 14 percent of voters not registered with any party had returned their ballots.
Nearly two-thirds of voters in the district are already “permanent vote-by-mail” voters, so their ballots are regularly mailed to them. But for the other third, voting by mail could be a new experience.
“Many voters in this district will receive a mail-in ballot for the first time, so voter education has been critical,” Smith said. “In many ways, this election is a model of how elections may have to run in November.”
Some Democrats watching the race raised concerns that their base — younger voters and people of color — traditionally vote in person. Los Angeles County has several in-person voting locations for the special election, but none in Lancaster, a city with a sizable African American population.
There is also an ongoing court case surrounding a process known as ballot harvesting, where volunteers collect ballots and bring them to drop-off locations. The California Republican Party is suing Newsom to ban the practice for upcoming special elections. Neither the state GOP nor the California Democratic Party responded to requests for comment.
Smith’s deputy campaign manager, Kunal Atit, said, “Due to public health concerns, we are not collecting ballots from supporters at this time.”
Garcia’s campaign declined to comment on whether it would be collecting ballots. Last week, CBS News reported on emails from his campaign manager that showed the campaign encouraging ballot harvesting as recently as April 10.
“Turnout is the big unknown,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the race. “Nobody knows because we’ve never had a federal general election amid a pandemic.”
This report has been updated to correct what’s known about the absentee ballots returned.