When Mike Garcia beat Christy Smith in the special election for California’s 25th Congressional District on May 12, the Republican Party understandably celebrated. Not only was it the first time the GOP had flipped a California district since 1998, but it was also seen as a reliable indicator for a Republican national victory come November 3. The openly-expressed sentiment among Republicans was that if they could win in CA-25, they could win back the house.
Non-partisan election experts have urged pundits not to read too much into the results. The Democrats have downplayed their loss and insist that they will win back the seat when the two candidates face each other again in November. Special elections are very different from general elections, and this one was virtually unique in its circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic dominates every aspect of life right now, and the virus has colored voter sentiment as well as affecting the mechanics of how votes were cast. But other factors, including the choice of candidate, the turnout, and the broader political environment, mean that the message of May 12 may not be as clear as some would have us believe.
There’s no denying that Mike Garcia was an exceptionally strong candidate and that the Democrats were on the back foot from the start. Katy Hill had resigned following a scandal that left her extremely unpopular with local voters. Some of that resentment was bound to transfer to whatever candidate the Democrats put forward in her place. Hill’s ill-judged endorsement of Smith arguably did the latter more harm than good.
Garcia, on the other hand, was a political newcomer completely untarnished by any previous voting record or political engagement. He was a war hero, a former fighter pilot and Iraq veteran, and a defense contractor in a district where defense and aerospace are the leading employers. He was also a Latino candidate in a racially-diverse district that is one-third Latino. Garcia promised lower taxes and opposed what he called “liberal Sacramento dysfunction.” By casting Smith as the political establishment and playing the role of the everyman outsider, Garcia was able to appeal to blue-collar and disenfranchised voters as well as traditional Republican supporters.
Smith, a member of the California State Assembly, won heavyweight endorsements from Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Still, she was forced to apologize after seeming to mock Garcia’s military record in a video. Her fundraising tactics were also criticized, whereas Garcia’s campaign was extremely well-funded. All this suggests that it was the candidates, as much or more than as the parties or the issues, which people voted for in CA-25.
The wider picture
We live in a time of widespread unease and uncertainty. With the US facing a significant economic downturn, civil unrest, and a pandemic that seems out of control, many will blame the incumbent party and the president. They will call for a change of government. However, many others will adopt the policy of “better the devil you know” and may conclude that the GOP represents a safer pair of hands than Democrat liberalism. When “time to change trains” meets “don’t rock the boat,” it can be very hard to predict the outcome.
Some would argue that the answer is to look beyond party politics and to come together on trying to fix the problems instead. No Labels has been working to encourage bipartisanship in US politics for years and is a major supporter of the Problem Solvers’ Caucus, an equal mix of Democrat and Republican politicians working together to tackle major issues such as healthcare, security, and infrastructure. These are the issues that ordinary people care about, and arguably these will be more important in the presidential election than traditional party loyalties.
Special elections traditionally have a much lower turnout than presidential elections, and this was no exception. It should also be remembered that in this case, “turnout” is metaphorical, as the vast majority of votes were cast by mail-in ballots, due to the pandemic. Traditionally, mail-in votes are thought to favor Republicans, and the same is said about special elections. In both cases, older, white voters are more likely to show than younger and more marginalized members of the electorate.
The CA-25 special election was seen as a dry run for how mail-in voting would work in the presidential election, so maybe there are lessons that can be drawn. The first is that the system seemed to work; the second is that it may skew slightly in favor of Republicans, though not to an unfair degree. All eligible voters must receive ballots and be informed as to how to cast them. Rules limiting in-person voting have the potential to interfere with the democratic process, and of course, lockdown rules also restrict the amount of traditional campaigning that can be undertaken. Both parties can learn lessons here, as can those responsible for ensuring a fair and open electoral system.
Far fewer votes were cast in May than in 2018; less than 50%. The turnout in November is expected to be 80% or better. Whether or not the Republicans continue to push back the Blue Wave remains to be seen, but it is far from proven that this also indicates a swing in the president’s favor across the state. Garcia won fair and square, but a vote for Garcia is not a vote for Trump. November may be a different story altogether.