For the first time in more than two decades, Republicans have flipped a Democratic House seat in California.
Democrat Christy Smith conceded Wednesday afternoon that GOP Navy veteran Mike Garcia “is the likely victor” in the special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill in California’s 25th District outside Los Angeles.
A few hours later, The Associated Press called the race with Garcia leading Smith, a state assemblywoman, 56 percent to 44 percent, with 82 percent of precincts reporting.
Ballots mailed Tuesday will still count if they are received by Friday. While Smith said it was important to count every vote, the special election for the remainder of Hill’s term was effectively over, she indicated, adding that she was looking toward November, when she and Garcia will face off again for a full two-year term.
“While it’s critical that we ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor,” Smith wrote in a post on Facebook. “As such, I’d like to congratulate him. That said, this is just one step in the process.”
Garcia told supporters and reporters on a conference call Tuesday night that his campaign had “made history.” The win marks the first time the GOP has wrested a House seat in California from the Democrats since 1998, when Republicans Doug Ose and Steven T. Kuykendall flipped open seats.
Garcia will serve the remainder of Hill’s term, which runs through January. Hill resigned last year amid allegations of improper relationships with staff.
The special election was the first competitive partisan contest since the nation was effectively shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans, who touted Garcia’s profile as a former fighter pilot who could appeal to the district’s veterans and workers in the aerospace industry, were already cheering his victory as a sign of strength heading into November.
“It’s been [a] fun night, but only a prelude to November,” National Republican Congressional Chairman Tom Emmer tweeted Tuesday night as Garcia opened up a commanding double-digit lead in the early count.
Garcia ran with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, who lost the 25th District by 7 points in 2016, and he touted that support in Facebook ads.
The election was conducted mostly with mail-in ballots, with limited in-person voting sites. Days before Garcia’s victory, Trump warned on Twitter that Democrats were trying to “steal” the election, an apparent reference to the addition of an in-person voting location in Lancaster, a city with sizable African American and Latino populations. National Republicans sharply criticized the move, although the city’s GOP mayor, a Garcia backer, had supported it.
Democrats will be quick to note that the political environment should look different come November, when Garcia and Smith will share a ballot with Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Democrats expected low turnout in the special election to favor Republicans, who tend to be more reliable voters, but they anticipate higher turnout in November to put the seat back in their column.
In 2018, for example, roughly 118,000 voters in the 25th District turned out for the June primary, and 52 percent backed GOP candidates while 48 percent backed Democrats. That November, turnout more than doubled to 245,000 voters. Democrats saw a 6-point swing in support for Hill, who ousted GOP Rep. Steve Knight, 54 percent to 46 percent.
Knight ran again for the seat this year after Hill resigned. Democratic groups, apparently seeking the same matchup as in 2018, funded ads ahead of the March 3 top-two primary to try to help him advance him to Tuesday’s special election, but Garcia finished ahead of him.
Shortly after the primary, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, forcing both campaigns to shift to virtual operations, and providing an early test of campaign tactics amid a global health crisis.
Garcia, whose father immigrated from Mexico, will become the seventh Hispanic Republican in the House. An executive at the defense contractor Raytheon who is also in the real estate business, Garcia campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes and regulations.
“I’m running because I don’t want my nation to become what this state has become,” he said at a debate conducted over Zoom last month and hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Garcia also promised, “No drama, just results.”