California Special Election Sounds Warning for Democratic Party

On Tuesday, Republicans took a House seat back from California Democrats for the first time in over 20-years.

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Mike Garcia for Congress Photo. May 4, 2020. (photo: MGarcia2020)

Lost in the news about the coronavirus this week was a political shift of potentially historic significance, one that may bode poorly for Democrats in November.

California, a state which has been steadily turning the House of Representatives blue without fail for two decades, reversed the trend on Tuesday and elected a Republican to Congress.

Republican Mike Garcia beat Democrat Christy Smith in a special election to fill the House seat vacated by the resignation of former California Representative, Democrat Katie Hill.

“We did make history this evening and hopefully the confirmation of the results will prove that here very shortly. To my team, to the folks on the line and with us this evening, I can’t thank you enough. We’ve set a model on how to run a campaign and how to win.” — Rep. Elect Mike Garcia (R-CA). May 12, 2020

Naturally, spin-doctors in the California Democratic Party have been hard at work this week, anxious to reassure nervous Democratic voters that all is still well for November.

Party leaders remind us that Hill’s seat did in fact belong to a Republican before Katie Hill was elected in 2018, which it did. California Democrats also point out that California’s 25th belonged to a succession of Republicans until 2018. Also perfectly true.

“Leaks” from inside the California Democratic Party even point to Katie Hill herself as one reason Garcia was able to win.

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Former U.S. Congresswoman Katie Hill speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. June 1, 2019. (photo: Gage Skidmore)

Katie Hill left Congress last year after intimate photos surfaced of her and a campaign staffer, and amid rumors of another inappropriate sexual relationship between Hill and a congressional staffer. Hill’s conduct sparked an investigation by the House Committee on Ethics.

Newly codified rules about the conduct of House members forbids sexual relationships between elected members of Congress and their congressional staff members, though a loop-hole still remains. While members of a congressional staff are off limits, there are no hard rules protecting campaign staff members.

Katie Hill resigned rather than face a full ethics investigation and a special election was organized to fill her seat.

Yet all of this spin should not cause Democrats to dismiss a Republican victory in California. There are a number of warning bells flashing in California that Democrats would do well to heed between now and Election Day.

The rush to dismiss his election as a fluke should not obscure the real question Democratic leadership should be asking: Is Mike Garcia the first or the last?

There are quite a few House seats in known swing-districts. These “purple” seats could go either way in any given election year. Democrats are expecting to win some of those and lose others in November.

Democrats would still be likely to retain their majority in the House, even if Republicans did manage to pick up a few swing district seats. Republicans, on the other hand, would need to win almost all of the swing seats to wrest the Speaker’s gavel away from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

But lost in these the electoral math calculations is a possibility leadership Democrats haven’t been considering: Losing blue seats in November. Garcia’s election in California should prove it is worth considering.

House Democrats cannot afford to give up seats in deep blue places like California. If a stronghold like that is in play for 2020, Democrats may be serious danger of losing their House majority, to say nothing of taking back the White House from Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton won California’s 25th by a wide margin in 2016; which, when he is sworn into Congress, will make newly-minted Rep. Mike Garcia the only House Republican elected from a district Clinton carried so handily.

Christy Smith, Rep-elect. Mike Garcia’s Democratic opponent in this race, was hand-picked by Nancy Pelosi to replace Katie Hill. Yet, for the first time since 1998, Republicans have flipped a Democratic seat in California.

“What drives people to vote is usually either excitement, passion or anger. And right now, conservatives are feeling anger more than anybody. That might be an indicator.” — Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc.

That a Republican has defeated a Democrat in California- right now- should perhaps trouble Democrats more than anything. Trump is, as always, taking a beating in the press; except now the coronavirus death toll is climbing and the economy is in the tank.

Nor can Democrats comfort themselves that Democrats were simply too scared to go to the polls on election day.

“All of the roughly 425,000 registered voters in the district received a ballot by mail, postage paid, so that they only had to fill it out and slip it back in the mailbox.” — New York Times. May 13, 2020.

For a special election, California’s was even a high turnout. There are more registered Democrats than there are registered Republicans in California’s 25th district.

The failure of California Democrats to mail back their mail-in ballots should have the Democratic Party scolding from the rooftops.

Yet, in their anxiousness to reassure Democratic voters that losing the two special elections this week- one in California and another in Wisconsin- is really no big deal, Democratic Party spin-masters are risking sending the exact opposite message to the Democratic electorate:

That November isn’t an all hands on Democratic deck moment.

In spite of losing the special election in Wisconsin yesterday, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is trying to parlay the fact that since the Republican won by slightly less this election, it was, in fact, a victory for Democrats.

“Trump’s base is cracking. Rural voters are running away from Trump because they know they can’t afford four more years of his broken promises in the Oval Office.” — Ben Wikler, Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman.

While that is very comforting, Trump carried that district by 20-points and the Wisconsin Republican Representative won by 22-points in 2016. Pointing out that Congressman-elect Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) only won the district by 14-points this week and calling that a victory for Democrats is dishonest.

A Republican winning the special election by a smaller margin doesn’t mean Trump’s base is slipping away; Trump’s name wasn’t on the ballot. Wisconsin Democrats need to stop pretending turnout in November will not far exceed that of Tuesday’s special election.

A victory for Democrats is a victory for Democrats. Another Democratic seat in Congress would be a victory for Democrats. A loss by slightly less is not a win. And a special election in May is not a presidential election in November.

But if Republicans can win in California’s 25, they can win anywhere.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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