After Katie Hill's Resignation, Republicans Want A Rebound In This North LA County District

Buttons at the Republican Values Center in Simi Valley. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

After flipping a longtime GOP seat in 2018, freshman Representative Katie Hill looked like a Democratic juggernaut.

But just 10 months into her first term in Congress, conservative websites published intimate photos of Hill without her consent, and she faced a House ethics investigation into allegations of an affair with a congressional staffer, which Hill denied.

As abruptly as she'd become a fundraising magnet and darling of House leadership, Hill left public office.

Hill's departure amid what she called "a horrible smear campaign" opened the floodgates for over a dozen other candidates vying to represent parts of North L.A. County, including Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster, along with a slice of eastern Ventura County.

For years, the GOP could count on this suburban and rural area as a bulwark against an increasingly blue metro Los Angeles. The district includes the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where one can visit a hologram of the 40th U.S. president, a replica of the Oval Office and a decommissioned Air Force One.

But in 2018, Republican efforts to hold on to the party's last significant chunk of L.A. County failed to take off. The 25th was one of seven California GOP seats captured by Democrats in the blue wave.

2020 hopefuls include the famous and infamous: former Congressman Steve Knight, who lost to Hill in 2018, wants the seat back. Local Assemblywoman Christy Smith announced her candidacy the day after Hill said she would resign. Other candidates include firebrand progressive media personality Cenk Uyger of "The Young Turks" show. A former Navy fighter pilot and defense contractor executive, Mike Garcia, has been campaigning since he launched an effort to unseat Hill last spring.

Even George Padapoulous, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is making a run.

As the demographics here grow younger and more diverse, Democratic activists see the district as safely in the blue column. But Republicans are out to prove them wrong.

A few extra wrinkles await voters here: on top of tackling an array of L.A. County election changes, the 25th District has both a special election and the regular congressional primary to decide on. One vote will help send two candidates to the general election in November; the other will pick someone to fill the last six months of Katie Hill's term.

If no one gets over 50% of the vote in the March 3 special election, there will be a runoff May 12.

Here are the top four candidates in terms of fundraising and polling:

GOP congressional candidate Mike Garcia speaks at a CA-25 forum at the Republican Values Center on Feb. 8, 2020 (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

REPUBLICAN UPSTART: MIKE GARCIA

Garcia's campaign logo brings to mind the movie "Top Gun" — which can't hurt in a district that includes Edwards Air Force Base and numerous jobs supported by the defense industry.

"I absolutely do believe a Republican and a good conservative can win back the district," said Garcia, speaking outside his Simi Valley office in a storefront a few doors down from Office Depot. He added voters "just need to be inspired."

The L.A. and Ventura County Republican parties have endorsed Garcia, who believes voters will credit President Trump and the GOP with positive economic indicators — like low unemployment, record stock market highs and a steadily expanding GDP.

"Whether you like the style or not, this president is absolutely knocking it out of the park. And results matter," he said.

Among Garcia's goals is to replace Obamacare — he would like to see health insurance markets opened up across state lines — but he said members of Congress have to come up with a better plan before ditching the current system.

"You have to have a plan in place before you repeal it," he said.

Former Congressman Steve Knight spoke during a CA-25 candidate forum at the Republican Values Center Feb. 8, 2020. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

LOOKING FOR A COMEBACK: STEVE KNIGHT

In this race, Garcia's not alone in tying himself to Trump.

"When I was in Congress I voted with the president's policies 99% of the time," said ex-Congressman Knight during a forum at the Republican Values Center in Simi Valley earlier this month.

Knight said he's taken issue with some of the president's comments, including mocking the late Senator John McCain, but is fully onboard with Trump's policy agenda.

Limited available polling so far shows Knight beating the first-time candidate Garcia for a spot in the general election. Knight, an Army veteran and former LAPD officer, represented the district for two terms.

He was unavailable for an interview for this story.

Photo from the Christy Smith for Congress Flickr page. (Christy Smith For Congress Flickr )

DEMOCRATS' CHOICE: CHRISTY SMITH

Whoever prevails on the right will likely face Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in November. She styles herself as a no-nonsense member of the state Legislature.

"I'm a candidate who is actually far more interested in doing the work than the politics part," she said. "I appreciate your interview today...but if I could do the job without this part I'd be more than happy to do it."

Smith began her career as an analyst in the U.S. Department of Education. She served nine years on the Newhall school board before flipping a Republican state Assembly seat, the 38th, in 2018. The same Democratic groups that carried Katie Hill to victory in the midterms are now backing Smith, as are most local elected Democrats.

In her congressional campaign, Smith is following a playbook that worked for moderate Democrats in suburban districts across the country in 2018: focusing on kitchen-table basics that reach across party lines, like protecting the environment and access to health care.

"We do need a public option that allows people to buy in at a price level they can afford," Smith said.

But with Bernie Sanders and progressives in the driver's seat nationally, some Democratic candidates say it's not enough to play it safe.

CA-25 congressional candidate Cenk Uygur poses for a selfie at a Democratic candidate forum at Transplants Brewery in Palmdale, Jan. 9, 2020. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

THE FIREBRAND PROGRESSIVE: CENK UYGUR

"We are not here to compromise with Republicans. We are here to defeat them!" Cenk Uygur roared from the stage at a candidate forum at Transplants Brewery in Palmdale in January.

Uygur is the longtime host of internet talk show "The Young Turks" and co-founder of a progressive PAC called Justice Democrats. He's a staunch advocate of Medicare for All, which would end private health insurance in favor of a government-run system. Uygur joined the race, he said, to shake up the establishment and reduce corporate money's influence on politics.

"Unfortunately the people in power are old and pretty much corrupt," he said.

Fans of Uygur's flamethrower style have helped buoy his fundraising. But thus far, the rabble rouser hasn't gained enough traction in polling to make it into the top two candidates who will compete in the general election.

And some of his history has come back to haunt him: comments he made about women early in his career caused Bernie Sanders to rescind an endorsement.

"Nineteen years ago when I was trying to be a politically incorrect Republican, I did say bad things. I hated the things that I said," Uygur said. "I deleted that 15 years ago. The reason was because that wasn't me."

THE BIG PICTURE: DO REPUBLICANS HAVE A SHOT?

Hanging over everything in the 25th is a critical question: Was Katie Hill's victory in 2018 a fluke, or has this once solidly red district changed for the foreseeable future?

That key question came up at the Simi Valley Republican forum, where some candidates diminished Hill's win.

Garcia, the newcomer, said an aggressive campaign could bring the seat home to the GOP. He took a jab at Hill, saying she "was electable because of her charisma, because of her hard work, but obviously there was (sic) no qualifications underneath."

The event moderator took a more personal swipe: "I heard she likes parties, but anyway, that's in the past," the moderator interjected as people in the crowd, some sporting red "Make America Great Again" hats, laughed along.

But Steve Knight, the former Congressman who lost to Hill by almost 9 points in 2018's Blue Wave election, quickly switched to a serious tone.

"I wouldn't laugh at that," Knight said. "She got elected right here in this district, and we've got to be aware of things like that."

Knight also said he's watched California Republicans lose ground over the years — a GOP candidate hasn't won a statewide office since 2006. He said the party has to find a way to reach out to new and independent voters to avoid more electoral disappointment in 2020.

"Something's happening here in California. They're electing Democrats way more than they're electing Republicans," he said. "We've got to figure that out. We've got to do better."

Demographics and voter registration trends are moving against the GOP's favor in the 25th district, however. Last month, The Cook Political Report moved the seat from its "Lean Democratic" column to "Likely Democratic."