Garcia, whose father emigrated from Mexico (this district is 38 percent Latino), was nominated to the Naval Academy by longtime former GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee and remains popular in the 25th CD. As a Super Hornet Strike Fighter pilot, he flew 30 combat missions in Iraq and later served ten years back home as an executive at Raytheon.
Smith also has an ideal profile for these swing suburbs: the Santa Clarita resident, former Department of Education analyst and PTA mom rose to president of the Newhall School District before raising $2 million in 2018 to flip a GOP-held Assembly seat. Smith strikes a pragmatic tone, emphasizing her work on charter school accountability and public safety, and entered the race with Hill's strong backing.
However, unlike Hill in 2018 or Garcia now, Smith isn't a first-time candidate and has a Sacramento record to attack. And unlike Hill, who outspent Knight $8.4 million to $2.5 million in 2018, Smith won't have a massive spending advantage. As of mid-February, as most GOP House candidates badly lagged in fundraising, Garcia narrowly led Smith $1.2 million to $1.1 million raised, owing to a much earlier start.
Besides Garcia's uniquely strong biography and financial competitiveness, there are three reasons both the DCCC and NRCC are spending heavily, and the race is up for grabs despite California's leftward drift and Trump's low approval.
First, the March 3 all-party primary was a wake-up call. Even with a competitive Democratic presidential primary driving turnout, the five Democrats on the special election ballot only combined for 51 percent of the vote, while five Republicans accounted for 49 percent. In the 25th CD primary for the November race for the full term, six Republicans actually outpolled six Democrats 50 percent to 49 percent.
There's reason to believe a lower-turnout, stand-alone special election could further add to Garcia's opportunity on May 12. The district only cast about 157,000 primary votes on March 3, compared to 245,000 when Hill won in 2018 and 274,000 in 2016, when Clinton carried the 25th CD. Lower-propensity voters in these fast-growing suburbs tend to skew non-white and friendlier to Democrats.
Second, the COVID-19 outbreak adds a lot of uncertainty. On the one hand, all 420,928 voters will automatically receive ballots in the mail, and voters stuck at home may have little else to do but fill them out and send them in. Smith's campaign points to recent mayoral elections as evidence all vote-by-mail elections could actually boost turnout, producing a more diverse, Democratic electorate.
On the other hand, the mandatory stay-at-home order quashes campaign field organizers' ability to "harvest" ballots at doors and turn them in, a practice made legal by a state law change after 2016 and that some Republicans blamed for close losses in 2018. It's impossible to quantify the impact that had in the midterms, but a smaller turnout that skews towards white and longtime voters would help Garcia.
Third, Republicans believe they have an effective attack on Smith, who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. They contend that Smith skipped a committee hearing scheduled for March 4, the day after the primary and the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. The most recent meeting's agenda discussed wildfires, with no mention of Coronavirus.
Smith calls the attack frivolous and maintains that she's been urgently focused on getting PPE to frontline workers and helping small businesses acquire bridge loans instead of holding lengthy hearings. But simultaneously playing up her emergency management credentials and explaining that her committee's role is only to look at crises retroactively might seem curious to voters at a time the virus is all-consuming.
It'll depend entirely on how many residents mail in their ballots. I'm hoping this is Wasserman admitting that there are so many variables right now that the race is impossible to call right now, but Democrats need to be working to save this seat and maybe this will snap them out of it.