LOS ANGELES (AP) — Long-suffering California Republicans finally have something to celebrate.
Former Navy fighter pilot Mike Garcia captured an open U.S. House seat north of Los Angeles on Wednesday, giving Republicans a rare victory in one of the nation’s most Democratic states.
Garcia defeated Democrat Christy Smith in a special election to complete the remainder of the term of former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned last year. Garcia’s win marks the first time in over two decades that a Republican captured a Democratic-held congressional district in California.
“I’m ready to go to work,” Garcia said.
Smith delivered her congratulations but said she expected the roles to be reversed in November, when the two meet in a rematch for the full, two-year House term that begins in January.
“This is only one step in the process,” she said in a statement.
Garcia, a political newcomer, had a 12-point edge over Smith in the special election for the swing 25th District, which cuts through suburbs and small ranches in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Coupled with another GOP special election victory Tuesday in a heavily Republican Wisconsin district, Garcia’s win would leave Democrats with a 233-198 House majority, plus an independent and three vacancies.
Democrats are heavily favored to retain House control in November’s elections.
Republicans said Garcia’s victory showed the GOP can win in suburban districts, where moderate voters deserted the party in droves in 2018. Republicans lost 40 seats that year, enough for Democrats to take hold of the chamber. Seven of those seats were in California, including the 25th District.
But Democrats said there would be a different result when Garcia and Smith face off again in November, when President Donald Trump’s name on the ballot is expected to draw far more Democratic voters to the polls.
“Democrats will retake this seat in November,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who leads her party’s House political organization.
The race in the 25th District was being watched nationally as a proxy vote on Trump’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis, as well as for hints about the political climate heading toward the November elections.
Trump, who lost the district in 2016, urged voters to support Garcia, while former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats backed Smith.
Garcia appeared to benefit from enthusiasm among conservatives who saw a rare opportunity to seize a Democratic-held seat in California, while the electorate that turned out in the unusual May special election skewed toward reliable, older Republican voters, even though the district has a Democratic registration edge.
His Hispanic surname was likely a benefit in a district with a significant Latino population, and his military service would play well in a district known as popular with veterans and Los Angeles police officers.
Smith, meanwhile, tried to motivate Democrats to return to the polls just two months after the state’s presidential primary, when the campaigns of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and other candidates worked to turn out voters, said Paul Mitchell of nonpartisan research firm Political Data Inc.
Smith “is not the sum of all those presidential candidates,” Mitchell said. “That’s a challenge.”
Garcia and Smith each raised over $2 million, a rare instance in a year when Democrats in key races have usually far outgunned Republicans in contributions. Outside Democratic and GOP political organizations also poured more than $2 million apiece into the contest.
The seat became vacant last year after Hill acknowledged an affair with a campaign worker and the House opened an ethics probe into an allegation that she was involved with a member of her congressional staff, which Hill denied.
Smith and Garcia topped a crowded field of candidates in the March 3 primary.
Garcia's win shows Republicans can compete in a district where Clinton defeated Trump in 2016. He lost the state by over 4 million votes.
The GOP now holds just seven of California’s 53 House seats.
Trump has been at the center of the race, summoning support for Garcia while attacking Smith and her Democratic supporters. Last weekend, the president took to Twitter to attack a decision to add an in-person polling place in Lancaster, a part of Los Angeles County with a significant black population. “Rigged Election!” Trump wrote. However, it turned out the decision was supported by Lancaster’s Republican mayor.
Most of the campaign was conducted online, without traditional rallies and door-knocking.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed.