CA-25 Special Election: Democrats Fear Losing The Congressional Seat Katie Hill Flipped In The High Desert

Linda and Robert Enos in Palmdale, California on May 3, 2020. (Libby Denkmann / LAist)

The election this Tuesday in California's 25th Congressional District is taking place not only in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, but also the scandal that led to Democrat Katie Hill's resignation.

In a sign of the race's rhetorical importance to both parties, President Trump has endorsed Republican candidate Mike Garcia on Twitter and taken a swipe at the opening of voting centers in Lancaster. (More on that later.)

Christy Smith, the Democratic candidate, has scooped up nods from 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.

The stakes are high. Democrats are suddenly concerned about losing a seat their party had just gained in the 2018 midterms in an area of Southern California — north Los Angeles and eastern Ventura counties — that long had been a Republican stronghold.

Pastor Jacob Johnson of Growing Valley Baptist Church in Lancaster has watched the Democratic Party's ups and downs in his neck of the woods over the past eighteen months.

Things peaked when Hill flipped the longtime GOP seat in 2018, one of seven California Republicans swept out of Congress during that election's blue wave.

"But amidst that celebration, let's just say, life occurred," Johnson said. "And it put them in a situation that I'm sure they never expected to be."

"Life" was Hill's sudden resignation, less than a year later, in the wake of intimate photos published online without her consent, and a House ethics probe launched to look into accusations of an improper relationship with a staff member.

"After every mountaintop experience, there is a valley," Johnson added. "Now [Democrats] find themselves in the valley."

The hangover from Hill's resignation has weighed on local Democratic activists.

"It's tough to get people to keep up their energy and enthusiasm and stay in this and keep going," said Hilary Schardein, chair of CA25 United for Progress, a liberal group backing issues supported by the Democratic candidate, Assembly member Christy Smith.

Tuesday's election will fill out the remainder of Hill's term until January, 2021. Both candidates are poised to face each other in the November general election for a full two-year term.

Smith announced her candidacy the day after Hill said she would step down. The Republican candidate, Garcia, is a Raytheon executive and former Navy fighter pilot.

L.A. County vote center lead Steven Toro sanitizes pens to keep voters safe in Palmdale, CA on May 3, 2020. (Libby Denkmann / LAist)

CORONAVIRUS TAKES CENTER STAGE

How to respond to the coronavirus pandemic has become the central issue of the race.

Garcia supports the Trump administration's approach to reopen the economy as soon as possible.

Smith backs Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan for opening the economy, which includes a requirement for local communities to have a plan to track and trace infections.

"The most important thing we can do is to remind people to continue to stay safe at home until their respective county or community orders expire," she said.

Garcia's supporters and volunteers have courted people such as Linda Enos, who worries about the impact of stay-at-home orders on the economy and personal liberties.

"People are losing their jobs, their incomes," Enos said at a recent protest against stay-at-home orders. She and her husband, Robert, run a coffee shop that had to close because of local and state health orders to prevent the spread of the virus. "They're destroying our economy. I think it's waking up a sleeping giant."

Robert Enos says banning in-person church service, along with other big gatherings, is an example of overreach by the state. He's confident there's enough simmering outrage in this suburban and rural district to help propel Garcia to victory.

"We're watching this with all this shutdown and the freedoms being taken from us," he said. "We're watching. Who are the politicians that are standing for us, wanting our freedoms back? And it'll show up on election day."

But polling shows the majority of Californians are more concerned about shelter-in-place orders ending prematurely.

Schardein says the recent "open up" demonstrations are one way for Republicans to energize their conservative base ahead of the special election.

"It was a whole bunch of people wearing Make America Great Again hats," she said. "From all appearances, it was just a political rally."

PANDEMIC RESHAPES CAMPAIGNING

The world has changed profoundly since California's primary on March 3. Garcia's and Smith's campaigns are suddenly playing out on Zoom instead of neighbors' doorsteps. Instead of an in-person debate, they took part in an online candidate forum.

Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith met in an online forum held by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce in April. (Santa Clarita Valley Chamber Of Commerce)

The candidates have had to shift policy gears as well. Issues such as health care and the economy have taken on new importance.

On paper, Smith should be the odds-on favorite to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

In recent years, the district's demographics have shifted to favor Democrats as the area's population grows younger and more diverse. Clinton won the district by seven percentage points in 2016, while first-time candidate Hill defeated Knight by nearly double digits.

But Republican voters tend to show up more consistently in non-presidential elections, said California State University Northridge political scientist Larry Becker, who added that nothing about a special election during a global pandemic is normal.

"We have no idea what turnout is going to be," Becker said.

As a safety measure, Los Angeles and Ventura counties mailed all registered voters an absentee ballot so that they won't have to vote in person. But candidates still have an uphill climb to motivate people with plenty of other worries on their minds.

"People are sitting at home helping their kid with their third-grade math work. They're trying to figure out how to help a loved one who might be sick," Becker said. "The special election is really, I think, not high on a lot of people's radar."

A BITTER BATTLE IN THE HIGH DESERT

Both political parties have been making moves suggesting they're expecting a razor-thin margin of victory.

Last week, Democrats asked for more places to vote in-person in part of the district with a large African American population, saying these voters may be disenfranchised by an all-mail election.

On Friday, the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder announced a new vote center would be available in Lancaster, after a request by Republican Mayor R. Rex Parris.

President Trump, Garcia and other Republicans criticized the move as a political "scam" by Democrats.

Meanwhile, the California GOP announced last week it is filing a lawsuit to stop "ballot harvesting," a practice that's legal in California, where campaign volunteers or community groups collect mail-in ballots to turn in to election officials. Republicans argue ballot harvesting is too vulnerable to fraud and unsafe during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the same time, a leaked email from the Garcia campaign appears to enlist churches to participate in a ballot collection effort.