Former Navy pilot and defense executive Mike Garcia was sworn into Congress on Tuesday, a week after beating Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in the special election for a seat in the Los Angeles suburbs.
Though final results of the race are still weeks away, Garcia jumped to an early and decisive lead in the May 12 runoff to fill the remainder of Democratic former Rep. Katie Hill’s term. As of Monday, he was about 10 percentage points ahead of Smith, who conceded May 13.
The 25th Congressional District had been without representation since October 2019, when Hill resigned after her nude photos were leaked and she was accused of having an affair with a congressional aide, a violation of House ethics rules. She denied the allegation.
Garcia’s victory marks the first time a Republican has won a seat held by a Democrat in California since 1998, and serves as a morale boost for beleaguered California Republicans, who lost seven House seats during the 2018 midterm elections.
Until Hill turned the district blue with her 2018 victory over Rep. Steve Knight, the 25th — which includes Palmdale, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley and part of Lancaster — had been a Republican stronghold since being redrawn after the 1990 census.
While Hill was helping Democrats win back control of the House, Garcia was a vice president in charge of developing new business at Raytheon, where he’d worked since leaving the Navy in 2009. He launched his bid against Hill in April 2019, arguing that she ran as a moderate but voted with more liberal members of the House Democratic caucus.
The Garcia campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Garcia has been critical of the state’s tax rates, homelessness and expensive housing market. He called the state “a victim of poor policy and poor execution,” during an April 24 virtual debate with Smith. He has also criticized AB5, the California law that stops businesses from classifying employees as independent contractors. Smith voted for the bill in the state Legislature.
Garcia has said he is “not a big fan” of Medicaid and has spoken of keeping food stamps “at lower levels.” He said he wanted to filter out people “that just don’t want to work.”
“There should be safety nets, but I don’t want the federal government to be the safety net,” he said in August 2019 on the Talk of Santa Clarita podcast. “I want the churches, I want the local community nonprofits, I want our neighbors to be the safety net.”
Former Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican who represented parts of Ventura County from 1987 to 2013, said he decided to support Garcia about “15 seconds” after meeting him. “I’ve never seen (a candidate) that worked harder, was more focused and organized,” he said.
Garcia grew up in Santa Clarita and graduated from Saugus High School, according to his campaign website. His father was an accountant and his mother was a bookkeeper. After his parents divorced, his mother remarried a police officer who had served in the Vietnam War.
Garcia has pointed to his father and grandfather’s legal immigration to the U.S. from Mexico in his arguments against illegal entry. He has said he opposes “sanctuary cities,” supports building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and backed the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting immigrants who cross the border illegally.
Garcia attended the U.S. Naval Academy, nominated by former Rep. Buck McKeon, who represented the 25th Congressional District for more than 20 years. (McKeon endorsed his campaign and attended his swearing-in, as did Garcia’s wife and two sons.) After earning a master’s degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University, Garcia began a decadelong career that involved flying combat missions during the Iraq War.
Garcia’s Democratic rival came under fire from Republicans, including President Donald Trump, over seeming to make light of Garcia’s military service during a video chat with supporters after a virtual debate. “OK, he’s got pictures of planes behind him,” she said of their Zoom backdrops. “I’ve got constitutional law books.” Smith apologized soon after.
Smith and Garcia will face off again in the November general election for a new term that will start January 2021.
The assemblywoman is a former U.S. Department of Education analyst and veteran of the Newhall school board. Her Assembly district overlaps about 60% of the congressional one.
Democrats have expressed confidence that Smith will prevail in the fall election, when the presidential race may help boost turnout among less reliable voters. “This is only one step in this process, and I look forward to having a vigorous debate about the issues in the upcoming November 2020 election,” Smith said in her statement announcing her concession.
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