“Maybe I did the wrong thing by stepping away.”
That was Katie Hill’s first thought when she found out the results of a May special election for her former seat representing the 25th Congressional District. After her shocking resignation the previous October, less than a year into her term, she felt comfortable passing the torch to Democratic frontrunner Christy Smith, assemblywoman for the 38th District. The expectation was that Smith would comfortably win the special election and serve out the remainder of Hill’s term. That’s not what happened.
In a surprising upset, Republican Mike Garcia, a former Navy pilot and vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, won the special election by nine points. Nobody was more devastated by his victory than Hill, who tweeted several days later that the outcome was “pretty fucking devastating.”
“I really questioned whether I’d done the right thing by stepping down,” Hill says. “I’m worried that general election voters do not know how important this race is and that Republicans are going to be energized.”
The 25th Congressional District consists of parts of Simi Valley, the Antelope Valley, and most prominently, the Santa Clarita Valley, where most of the district’s representatives have historically resided since 1993, with the notable exception of Republican Steve Knight. When Hill won her election against the incumbent Knight in 2018, no Democrat had represented the district since Edward R. Roybal retired in 1992. Despite the importance of the Santa Clarita area to the district, Hill insists the Antelope Valley is the “cornerstone” politicians should focus on, crediting the area as a large part of why she won in 2018.
“I think that’s why Steve Knight was pretty popular there,” Hill says of the two-time Republican congressman. “The Knight family was always known as an A.V. family. His name’s all over the schools there. What voters figured out, though, was that his votes didn’t translate to actually helping them.”
Garcia’s victory in the district could be short-lived. Pursuant to California law, his term ends exactly when Hill’s would have, and there is one more election he needs to win to hold onto his seat: the general election on November 3, when he once again faces off against Christy Smith.
Should Garcia lose his seat, he would hold the record as the shortest tenured member of Congress from California at just 229 days; Hill served 309 before her resignation. With only five votes under his belt, Garcia’s record in Congress reflects the brevity of his term, during which he’s often fallen in line with other Republican representatives for policies already fostering strong support or opposition. Most notably, Garcia voted no on H.R. 8015, the bill designed “to maintain prompt and reliable postal services during the COVID-19 health emergency,” according to GovTrack.
“Mike Garcia hasn’t really had enough time in office to develop a reputation or pass any legislation,” says Phil Gussin, a professor in Political Science at College of the Canyons in Valencia. “He’s kind of an empty vessel. I don’t mean that derisively, but…people who are deciding to vote for him, or not, are probably using the R next to his name or his connection to Trump.”https://www.instagram.com/p/CF46qi5gUkN/
Undecided voters with have a chance to get to know the candidates better at a pair of debates on October 14 and 20, but the most recent polling from Normington, Pett, & Associates shows that Smith currently leads Garcia by six points among “likely voters.” The same polling found that these same voters prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump by eight points in the presidential election. Although the results are promising for the Smith campaign, Hill points out that the election is still over a month away. Any worries she has about the race have nothing to do with Smith herself, however, who Hill considers a mentor.
“She’s been in Democratic politics for a long time,” Hill says. “I didn’t know how to navigate the party system, so I ran as a product of that moment, as a response to 2016. She knew a lot more than I did about what I needed to do, so we were able to coordinate our campaigns and when she changed her endorsement to me in the primary, it was a game changer.”https://www.instagram.com/p/CFDzc7DgTBn/
Smith was born in a military hospital in Würzburg, Germany, but has lived in the Santa Clarita Valley since 1979, where she attended high school and began her college studies. In 2018, she won the election for the CA-38 assembly against incumbent Dante Acosta. On top of her duties as an assemblywoman, Smith has been campaigning to run as the Democratic candidate in the race since Hill’s departure, during which she successfully fought off numerous attacks from 12 opponents across party lines to remain the frontrunner for the general election race, courting an impressive number of endorsements from politicians ranging from Vice President Joe Biden to Senator Elizabeth Warren.
It’s this increased attention on her candidacy that has led to more direct attacks from the Republican party, specifically in 30-second online advertisements that refer to her as “Sacramento Politician Christy Smith” and usually focus on her time spent as an assemblywoman.
“It’s just the nature of politics,” says Wade Alexander, a CA-25 voter and activist based out of Lancaster. “One candidate will come out with their smear, another comes out with theirs… it just gets like that, unfortunately. As for Christy, she does come from the grassroots in Santa Clarita, so I don’t think characterizing her as a status quo politician is accurate.”
Despite Smith’s loss in the special election, her campaign and Garcia’s campaign never stopped looking to the future, focusing on how to run a political bid during a global pandemic. Both campaigns have focused on virtual town halls, an increased online presence, and voter outreach programs to engage CA-25 residents. But will this be enough to affect voter turnout in a positive way?
“She cares about the issues and she’s going to be a champion for those issues,” Hill says of Smith. “But not being able to be there in person, it makes it a lot more challenging to show people you truly care.”
“I’m incredibly grateful for the grassroots, people-powered support propelling our campaign toward victory,” Smith wrote to Los Angeles in an email. “In the months after the May election, voters have seen my opponent’s true colors—a multimillionaire businessman who cares more about special interests than our community.”
“Team Garcia has been incredible in adapting to these unique circumstances,” Garcia wrote to Los Angeles in an email. “We were one of the first campaigns to adapt, and I believe our team is unparalleled. While I miss having face-to-face contact with the hardworking folks in the 25th (district), I look forward to when we can all come together as a community again.”
A first-time elected representative, Garcia is a former fighter pilot and executive at defense contractor Raytheon who was born and raised in the Santa Clarita Valley. His father immigrated from Mexico at the age of nine, and would later graduate from California State University Northridge, something Garcia often cites as an inspiration.
“This country offered both him and I an opportunity to live the American Dream, and a college education was a significant part of that,” he wrote. “Education is a critical tool and has set up many members of my family for future success.”
Education is a cornerstone of the attacks that RNCC advertising and Garcia’s newsletters have made against Smith. “Could you imagine firing teachers?” one of the commercials asks. “Sacramento Politician Christy Smith did. Smith voted to lay off teachers and slash salaries.”
Her campaign website disputes this claim directly, stating that “Every single staff member given a layoff notice was rehired when the Governor revised the state budget, partly due to advocacy by Christy and other school board members.” Nowhere on the website does Smith name her opponent directly, but every point made in a section titled “Get the Facts” is a direct response to accusations made in these ads. Even in the statement Smith’s campaign provided Los Angeles, he is merely her “opponent.”
“I’ll be ready on day one, working with colleagues no matter their party affiliation,” she wrote in the email to Los Angeles, “To bring better health care, education, infrastructure, and jobs back to our community.”
Garcia’s campaign, on the other hand, frequently name drops Smith. On the night of his primary victory, Garcia sent out an email to his supporters stating, “Christy Smith is a career politician who raised taxes, hurt small businesses, and is backed by Nancy Pelosi and her liberal allies who won’t stand up to the radical socialist agenda fervently pushed by those in her own party that will destroy America.” He later highlighted his victory in the special election as proof that the district has shunned “liberal” policies, stating he believes the district wants less taxation and more jobs. It’s his Libertarian focus on these issues that initially drew Garcia’s former campaign coordinator Samuel Nevarez to him.
“Mike knows what he’s doing, because he’s a businessman,” Nevarez says. “Christy Smith is for tax hikes for the middle class and the proposed legislation she’s talked about would only drive our economy to make the middle class struggle. Mike would like to see everyone strive.”
Activist Wade Alexander disagrees with Nevarez’s assessment of Garcia, stating, “I think he’s terrible. Mike does not reflect this community. This community is a more moderate district, and in my opinion, Mike Garcia appeals more to the hard right than to the values of the community.”
Nevarez is no longer affiliated with the Garcia campaign, having left back in October of last year to prepare for the birth of his son, but he still considers himself a Garcia supporter, even if he doesn’t always agree with Garcia’s methodology.
“When we saw the primary elections, [I didn’t like] the way he handled attacks on other Republicans,” Nevarez says. “I consider myself a very strong Reagan Republican, so this is where it comes down to Trumpism versus Reaganism.”
It’s the idea of “Trumpism” that drives much of the conversation around the CA-25 race. Gussin views it as being much larger than Mike Garcia or Christy Smith, and rather as a sign of something “bigger” happening across the country.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the vote in CA-25 was really a referendum on Donald Trump,” Gussin says. “I’m a big fan of people reaching out to the middle. Mike Garcia is in a tough spot, because in the current iteration of the Republican party, that’s heresy. It seemed to me, really early on, he really tied himself to Donald Trump and didn’t reach out to Democrats like he should in a mixed district.”
Garcia disagrees with Gussin’s assessment, viewing himself as an “objective voice” for the district, writing, “I’m not a career politician and I won’t shy away from the tough fights.”
One of the toughest fights Garcia will face is holding onto a seat he’s only occupied since May; despite being down in the polls, he feels confident he’ll be victorious.
“I see the race turning out in our favor,” he wrote. “In May, the voters showed the nation that they are tired of the high taxes and jobs-killing liberal policies coming from career politicians in Sacramento. The district knows I’m not a career politician.”
Gussin, however, characterizes Garcia’s win as a fluke that isn’t representative of the shifting dynamics in the area.
“It looks to me like there’s a possibility that there’s going to be another Blue Wave,” he says. “CA-25’s demographics have been changing, which brought Katie Hill to power. When Mike Garcia was elected, I think a lot of that was because the participation was so low. Now people are energized again. I see my students and how active they are now, so it’s a good possibility that [the district] will return to the Democrats.”
For her part, former congress member Hill believes that as long as the voters get to know Smith, they’ll overwhelmingly choose her on Election Day.
“One of the things I admire most about her is she’s so passionate about these issues,” Hill says. “She truly cares about people. There’s no ego, and she wants to be in a position where she can help the most people possible. She will be an effective member of Congress, just as she’s an effective legislator.”
In a microcosmic way, the CA-25 race mirrors the 2020 Democratic primaries. Both races had a presumed frontrunner with countless endorsements across party lines. Both candidates saw themselves temporarily lose favor with their voting bloc, with Smith’s loss of the special election and Biden placing fourth and fifth place in early state voting. Both fields were crowded until a decisive moment in March of this year; for Joe Biden, it was most of the field dropping out and endorsing him as the Democratic candidate. For Christy Smith, it was her decisive victory in the primary, in which the nearest Democratic competition earned almost 30 percent less of the vote than her. Now, for many voters, Alexander points out, the choice is between two candidates: President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden?
“In CA-25, now it’s also just a binary choice,” Alexander says. “Christy or Mike?”
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