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In key House battleground, GOP’s Garcia faces new challenger

Former space tourism CEO Whitesides calls himself a moderate problem-solver

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., faces a former aerospace executive in his bid for reelection next year in a district Democrats may need to win if they want to retake the House majority.
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., faces a former aerospace executive in his bid for reelection next year in a district Democrats may need to win if they want to retake the House majority. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a key House battleground north of Los Angeles, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia defeated the same Democrat three times in four years.

Democrats are seeking to rewrite the script in 2024, however, by backing George Whitesides, a political newcomer with a pragmatic streak, a background in aerospace and an abundance of campaign cash.

“He’s raising the resources to win a tough seat,” said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, who leads the center-left New Democrat Coalition and is honorary chair of its political arm. “I’m very aware of what it takes to flip these seats from red to blue and then hold them.”

Whitesides was heavily recruited to run in California’s 27th District and was the New Democrats’ first endorsed candidate of the cycle. Kuster sees him as the kind of mainstream Democrat that the party needs to regain the majority in the House by flipping swing district seats.

“We’re the can-do caucus and he shares our approach,” she said. “He wants to get the job done in Washington.”

An entrepreneur who describes himself as “kind of wonky,” Whitesides has a resume that his supporters say is well-calibrated to a district that’s home to aerospace companies, defense contractors and advanced manufacturing firms. He was CEO of the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the former chief of staff for NASA and co-founder of an organization that aims to stop megafires. 

Whitesides and Garcia are the only major party candidates in the March 5 all-party primary after Democrat Franky Carrillo dropped his bid in October and endorsed Whitesides, so the general election matchup is set. 

Whitesides, whose financial disclosure showed a net worth between $11 million and $34 million and included a 2020 contract with Virgin Galactic for two tickets “for rocket-powered spaceflight,” loaned his campaign $800,000 and had $1.7 million on hand at the end of September, compared with Garcia’s $1.6 million. Both candidates will need plenty of money to get their message across in the costly Los Angeles media market.

Whitesides’ personal wealth – and his willingness to tap it for his campaign – has become a line of attack for the GOP. 

“George Whitesides is a radical far-left megadonor trying to purchase a congressional seat, and Santa Clarita Valley and Antelope Valley families will see right through him,” said Ben Petersen, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democratic House candidate George Whitesides speaks at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2014, when he was CEO of the space tourism company Virgin Galactic. (Dave Kotinsky/WireImage/Getty Images)

Whitesides is running on a platform of reproductive rights, job growth and preserving Social Security and Medicare. He predicts the GOP playbook that paints every Democrat as an “extreme progressive” will have less potency when it’s wielded against him.

“I’m a problem solver,’’ Whitesides said, “and a moderate. I ran a company, I know how hard it is to make payroll. I know how important it is to…bring together people.”

Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot who flipped an open seat in a special May 2020 election and then held onto it that November, is a formidable opponent and has the advantage of incumbency, while Whitesides is largely a blank slate. 

“Mike Garcia has had several years now to do all the things incumbents do: casework, constituent service, building his brand,” said Lawrence Becker, a professor of political science at California State University, Northridge. “All of that is going to be to his benefit.”

Democrats are trying to question Garcia’s ethics following a report in The Daily Beast that the congressman sold up to $50,000 in shares of Boeing stock in August 2020, just weeks before a House committee he serves on released the results of a damning investigation on deadly crashes involving the company’s 737 Max 8 aircraft. The outlet also found that Garcia didn’t report the transaction until Nov. 23, 2020 — more than two months after the deadline and after he narrowly won reelection. 

Garcia’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but his spokesman, Liam Anderson, told KTLA that the allegations are “a desperate attempt to resurrect a previously failed partisan attack – three years after the fact – from a hyper-partisan publication.”

The 27th District encompasses the booming city of Santa Clarita and the high desert towns of the Antelope Valley. Many of its residents commute into Los Angeles, a drive that can consume up to four hours a day.

The seat is one of 17 won by Republicans in 2022 in districts that Joe Biden won in 2020. It’s also one of five where Biden’s margin was in double digits, with the Democrat beating Donald Trump among the district’s current voters by more than 12 percentage points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as a Toss-up.

It is viewed as a must-win seat for the Democrats, who hold a decisive edge in party registration

Garcia defeated former Democratic state lawmaker Christy Smith three times: In a 2020 special election, in a 2020 general election and in 2022. The 2020 general election, using district boundaries in place during the previous decade, was the closest of the three – Garcia won by just 333 votes. But just over a year ago, with new lines expected to heavily favor Democrats, he beat Smith by more than 6 points. 

With the potential for a Biden-Trump rematch, it’s not surprising that both contenders in this swing district would seek to occupy the moderate lane while painting their opponents as extremists.

“Families here know Mike Garcia’s record of service as a Navy fighter pilot and working with both parties to protect local jobs and deliver solutions to skyrocketing cost of living, violent crime and fentanyl trafficking,’’ the NRCC’s Petersen said.

Democrats say Garcia is on the “far-right fringe” of the Republican Party. He was among the House Republicans who voted to reject electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania following the 2020 election and opposed Trump’s impeachment after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by his supporters.

Whitesides said the suburban voters in the district disagree with the GOP’s restrictive stance on legalized abortion and reject the Trump platform. 

“It’s not a district [that’s] super far-left and it’s not a district that’s hardcore, Donald Trump-right,” he said. “It’s sort of right in the middle.”

Left unsaid is how Biden will play in the 27th District this time around. Becker, the Cal State professor, predicted Biden will likely win the district again in 2024, “but the question is, by how much and what kind of coattails will he have?”  

 “I don’t know what his approval rating is in the district,” Becker added. “But I suspect it’s similar to what we’re seeing across the country, which is…lower than he’d like it to be. The best thing he has going for him right now is that his likely opponent is Donald Trump.”

Whitesides expressed confidence that Biden’s signature jobs initiatives will play well in the 27th District. “I don’t think people know what the [Inflation Reduction Act] means but they do know that there’s a growing set of jobs around clean energy and they want local jobs,’’ he said. “I think [Biden’s] job performance is something that other presidents would be proud of.’’

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