Mike Garcia Trailed in Every Poll. So How Did He Win Twice in One Year?

Katie Hill’s former congressional district is red once again, albeit by a paper thin margin. It may have come down to two campaigns’ two very different approaches

If anybody ever tells you your vote doesn’t count, you can point them toward the CA-25 Congressional election.

After a tumultuous campaign year that saw Republican Mike Garcia win a special election by nine points in May to serve out the rest of former Rep. Katie Hill’s term, the fighter pilot and former Raytheon executive managed to defeat Democrat Christy Smith in the November election by just 333 votes almost a month after election day. 

“Victory is clear,” Rep. Garcia writes in an email to supporters. “After a long, tough fight, I am proud to earn the privilege of serving CA-25 for another 2 years.”

The defeat comes as yet another upsetting defeat for Smith, who throughout multiple polls this year was seen as the popular frontrunner to win what’s frequently described as a “purple” district that’s neither reliably red nor blue. After an initial surge in votes favoring Garcia on Election Day, Smith appeared to be in the lead on November 9, when she was up by 1,287 votes. That lead eventually vanished, however, as Garcia regained a small lead of only 159 votes the following day.

This margin would fluctuate over the next 20 days, but with every vote drop one thing became clear: Garcia was winning. Representative of the overall vibe of 2020, it was a long, slow process for Garcia to officially win. Seventeen days after Election Day, Garcia declared victory to his supporters in an email that gave “a tip of the hat to Christy Smith who ran an excellent and aggressive campaign.” The win wouldn’t be official, however, for another ten days, when Smith finally conceded in an email to her supporters.

“This is not the end result we fought for, but I am proud of the strong, grassroots campaign we ran,” she writes. Unlike Garcia’s victory email, Smith’s message did not mention her opponent and was in no way congratulatory.

“The results show our district is deeply divided,” she writes. “I am ready to work with partners across our community to heal division, move forward and rebuild together.”

CA-25, which encompasses Palmdale, Santa Clarita, and Simi Valley, falls along two separate county lines. According to the L.A. County Registrar, Smith received over 5,000 more votes than Garcia. If the district consisted solely of the cities in L.A. County, Smith would have defeated Garcia by a full point. However, a portion of the district falls in Republican stronghold Simi Valley, located in Ventura County, where Garcia received over 5,000 more votes than Smith. Former Rep. Katie Hill told Los Angeles back in October that the secret to overcoming the district’s partisan divide was to focus on Palmdale voters, whom she refers to as a “cornerstone” of the district. This is something Democrat Eric Ohlsen, a former Palmdale mayoral candidate, agrees with.

“I told [Smith] that in CA-25, the highest percentage of Democrats are in Palmdale, so let me help you,” Ohlsen says. “She refused. After the primary was over, she decided she had a problem with progressives, and ignored the Antelope Valley because of it. And if you can’t come here and get Democrats in the highest percentage Democrat area, you can’t win.”

Then there were the two campaigns’ very different approaches to voter outreach during a global pandemic. While Smith transitioned to virtual meetings and “drive-thru” meet-and-greet events, Garcia’s team ran what Ohlsen referred to as a campaign that “ignored COVID compliance” by canvassing and knocking on doors, while also adapting to the times with a focused effort on increasing turnout via mail-in voting and virtual town halls. 

“When I was taking down my signs, I’d see his, with the little green stickers saying ‘vote by mail,’” Ohlsen says. “I think he had the right approach and balance.”

Los Angeles also reported back in October that, due to his brief time in Congress finishing out Hill’s term, Garcia has currently been unable to establish an identity for himself on the national stage. As yet, he has only voted for a handful of bills, always along party lines, and has not yet introduced any bills of his own. 

Garcia could not directly be reached for comment, but his campaign directed Los Angeles to his statement to supporters, which says his short-term focus is on “pushing federal relief to those most impacted by COVID (individuals and small businesses).” His supporters believe this is just the beginning of a tide change for the district.

“I’m very optimistic that there will be a lot more coming from him now that he’s been elected to a longer term,” Garcia’s former campaign coordinator Samuel Nevarez says. “I think that when it comes to party leadership, we’re going to see a lot of it with Mike Garcia.”

“I think since he’s a former fighter pilot, it feels like a natural segue…that we can get some Space Force bases out here,” CA-25 voter and Garcia supporter Jordan Dixon-Hamilton says. “That would be fire if we could continue our aerospace legacy.”

Throughout our interviews with voters, the question each participant had the easiest time answering was: Why Mike Garcia? Why not Christy Smith?

“I like that Garcia has actual business experience,” Dixon-Hamilton says. “But [Smith] came off as a political opportunist, who wanted to fill Katie Hill’s seat who just wanted to be the next blond Democratic woman from CA-25.”

“There was some ambiguity between Katie Hill and Christy Smith,” Nevarez says. “Garcia’s message was on point, talking about national security and term limits, and even before he was elected, he portrayed himself as the voice of the people.”

Ohlsen, however, didn’t point to any superficial or policy-based reasons for Smith’s loss, instead citing what he thinks is a “lack of access” to Smith, for activists, fellow Democrats, and even the press.

“CBS in L.A. ran a piece awhile back on CA-25, where they had a sit-down interview with Garcia that they were able to keep cutting to,” Ohlen says. “They didn’t have that with Christy, and at the end, they said she declined the interview. Why would you decline that? It was a week before the election.”

Smith’s campaign did not respond for comment.

With the recent victory of President-elect Joe Biden, Garcia faces an uphill battle in Congress. Although he initially built his brand as an ally of President Trump’s, with Trump even going as far as to personally congratulate Garcia on his special election win, Democrats have retained control over the House and could possibly flip the senate after a set of run-off elections in Georgia this January. 

Garcia has yet to announce his plans for the upcoming Congress, but in recent months, the campaign has appeared to downplay his connection to the outgoing president; the last mention of Trump on Garcia’s campaign Twitter is a set of “best wishes” dispatched in October, when Trump tested positive for the Coronavirus. Now that the race is over, his supporters are hoping Garcia will continue to fight for them not only nationally, but locally.

“I just want to see him work on things that specifically benefit the district,” Dixon-Hamilton says. “I want jobs to come back. I want him to be able to get things done for us.”

RELATED: Katie Hill Says the Republican Win in Her Former District Is ‘Pretty Fucking Devastating’

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