It’s been a rough few months for House Republicans as virtually every independent political handicapper has suggested that any chance they had at taking back the House majority come November has all but disappeared amid President Donald Trump’s still-middling job approval numbers and the recent economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Which is why what happened Tuesday night in California matters so much.
For the first time in more than two decades, Republicans won a Democratic-held House seat in the Golden State as Republican pilot Mike Garcia swamped Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in the special election to replace former Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat, who resigned from office amid controversy last year.
Desperate for good news, House Republicans quickly seized on the victory – in a suburban district carried by Hillary Clinton by 7 points in 2016 – as a sign that predictions of their political demise had been drastically overstated.
“Let me be very clear: If we can win in CA-25, we can win back the House,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the GOP campaign committee, wrote in a memo to his Republican colleagues. “And just as we did last night, we will prove all the naysayers wrong.”
Which is an interesting claim! But is it right? What, exactly, does Garcia’s win tell us about the broader national playing field going into the fall? (And, as importantly, what doesn’t it tell us?)
1) Candidates matter. Garcia was a star from the start – a former fighter pilot who flew missions in Iraq and had never run for anything before. Smith was a fine candidate but she was (and is) a member of the California State Assembly. Garcia ran hard as an outsider ready to shake up Washington while national Republicans – led by an ingenious ad campaign from GOP consultant Bob Honold – painted Smith as “Sacramento Politician Christy Smith,” forcing her to answer for a series of votes on taxes and education cuts she had taken in her first term. (Watch the ads here and here.)
2) Turnout matters. In Hill’s 9-point victory over then-Rep. Steve Knight (R) in 2018, there were 245,000 votes cast in this race. As of Thursday morning, just more than 143,000 votes had been tallied – although that number will go up some as mail-in ballots are tabulated. That’s a massive delta between 2018 and 2020. And, as the Cook Political Report’s House editor David Wasserman notes:
“In the 25th CD and other exurban, diversifying districts like it, the highest-propensity voters — and the most reliable vote-by-mail partakers — tend to be older, white residents who lean Republican. The lower-propensity voters tend to be younger, non-white Santa Clarita Valley newcomers who lean Democratic and may have been priced out of Los Angeles by rising living costs.”
So, the drop-off between 2018 and this special election hit Democrats far harder than it did Republicans – despite Trump’s dire warning about how a vote-by-mail election was aimed at helping Democrats.
3) Special elections are special: This House race was the only thing on the ballot for voters in the 25th district on Tuesday. That won’t happen again in the fall when Garcia, this time as an incumbent, and Smith face off again. The presidential race will be at the top of the ticket come November, a clear reminder for voters that Garcia is in the same party as Trump, who is very likely to lose the district as he did in 2016. It’s also likely that Hill – and her resignation amid allegations of improper relationships with staffers – will have faded somewhat from voters’ minds by the fall. Hill did Smith no favors in this special election by using her PAC to spend $200,000 on a bizarre ad in which she urged Democrats to get out and vote – a message that those close to the race said only reminded people of why the seat was open in the first place.
Look. There’s absolutely no question that Republicans – and Emmer’s National Republican Congressional Committee in particular – deserve major credit for a) recruiting a candidate with the skill set and background of Garcia and b) spending the money necessary to make sure his message got out in the expensive Los Angeles media market.
And anytime a Republican wins a seat previously held by a Democratic incumbent that the Democratic presidential nominee won by 7 points, it should force the entire political world to take a step back and question the assumptions that are being made about the current political atmosphere.
At the same time, we need to be wary of reading too much into the results of a single election. As Inside Elections – a non-partisan, national campaign tip sheet – noted in its May 8 edition, Republicans won a hugely expensive special election fight in Georgia’s 6th district in 2017 only to lose the House (and Georgia’s 6th) in November 2018.
What, then, does Garcia’s win mean? Veteran Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who has worked extensively in California, put it best:
“The fundamentals of an election cycle that look favorable for Democrats don’t appear to be invalidated by last night’s results; it is a good talking point for Republicans in a year that so far has had few of them.”