Which is why what happened Tuesday night in California matters so much.
For the first time in more than two decades, Republicans won a Democratic-held House seat in the Golden State as Republican pilot Mike Garcia swamped Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith
in the special election to replace former Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat, who resigned from office amid controversy last year.
Desperate for good news, House Republicans quickly seized on the victory — in a suburban district carried by Hillary Clinton by 7 points in 2016 — as a sign that predictions of their political demise had been drastically overstated.
“Let me be very clear: If we can win in CA-25, we can win back the House,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the GOP campaign committee, wrote in a memo to his Republican colleagues
. “And just as we did last night, we will prove all the naysayers wrong.”
Which is an interesting claim! But is it right? What, exactly, does Garcia’s win tell us about the broader national playing field going into the fall? (And, as importantly, what doesn’t it tell us?)
1) Candidates matter
. Garcia was a star from the start — a former fighter pilot who flew missions in Iraq and had never run for anything before. Smith was a fine candidate but she was (and is) a member of the California State Assembly. Garcia ran hard as an outsider ready to shake up Washington while national Republicans — led by an ingenious ad campaign from GOP consultant Bob Honold — painted Smith as “Sacramento Politician Christy Smith,” forcing her to answer for a series of votes on taxes and education cuts she had taken in her first term. (Watch the ads here
2) Turnout matters.
In Hill’s 9-point victory over then-Rep. Steve Knight (R) in 2018, there were 245,000 votes cast in this race. As of Thursday morning, just more than 143,000 votes had been tallied — although that number will go up some as mail-in ballots are tabulated. That’s a massive delta between 2018 and 2020. And, as the Cook Political Report’s House editor David Wasserman notes
“In the 25th CD and other exurban, diversifying districts like it, the highest-propensity voters — and the most reliable vote-by-mail partakers — tend to be older, white residents who lean Republican. The lower-propensity voters tend to be younger, non-white Santa Clarita Valley newcomers who lean Democratic and may have been priced out of Los Angeles by rising living costs.”
So, the drop-off between 2018 and this special election hit Democrats far harder than it did Republicans — despite Trump’s dire warning
about how a vote-by-mail election was aimed at helping Democrats.
3) Special elections are special: This House race was the only thing on the ballot for voters in the 25th district on Tuesday. That won’t happen again in the fall when Garcia, this time as an incumbent, and Smith face off again. The presidential race will be…
Read More: Why Tuesday was the best day for House Republicans in a long time