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Republicans stake congressional victory, claim seat Democrat Katie Hill vacated

People line up to vote at College of the Canyons in Valencia on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 in Santa Clarita, Calif. The special election, between Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia, is for California's 25th congressional district seat that was formerly held by Katie Hill. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Republican Mike Garcia claimed victory Wednesday in the race for an open congressional seat north of Los Angeles, the first time the GOP has flipped a California district from blue to red in more than 20 years.

Garcia, 44, a defense industry executive and former Navy fighter pilot, held a double-digit lead over Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who issued a statement conceding even as more than 20,000 ballots remained to be processed.

“While it’s critical to ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor,” Smith said. “As such, I’d like to congratulate him.”

The election Tuesday was held to fill the seat vacated by former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill. She resigned last fall after nude photos of her were leaked and the House Ethics Committee opened a probe into allegations that the congresswoman had an affair with a Hill staffer.

Garcia was chosen to finish out the term ending in January; he will face Smith again in November in a bid to win a full two years in Congress.

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“I’m ready to go to work,” Garcia said in a victory statement.

Republicans were quick to trumpet their success — President Donald Trump issued a celebratory tweet even before the race was decided — and said it would boost their chances of taking back control of the House in November.

The last time the GOP flipped a Democratic-held California district was 1998, when Republicans Doug Ose and Steve Kuykendall won open seat contests in, respectively, Sacramento and the South Bay area of L.A.

“Winning in California bodes extremely well for the GOP’s ability to win anywhere else in the country,” said Dan Conston, head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican political action committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Garcia’s behalf.

But more impartial analysts warned against reading too much into the results, noting the idiosyncratic nature of special elections like the one held in the 25th Congressional District.

“Garcia is something of a political unicorn,” said David Wasserman, a nonpartisan elections expert with the Cook Political Report. “He’s a Republican who is a lot of things Trump isn’t: a military veteran, a son of a Mexican immigrant and an even-keeled defense executive.”

Hill broke a decadeslong Republican hold on the district, which sprawls from Simi Valley to the high desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, winning a decisive victory over Rep. Steve Knight in the November 2018 midterm election. When Hill quit, Smith, who had just won her Assembly seat, quickly became the party’s favorite to take Hill’s place.

Smith finished first in the March 3 primary, but fell well short of the majority needed to win the seat outright. Garcia, making his first try for political office, ran second in the crowded field, beating Knight and setting up Tuesday’s runoff.

Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, both sides believed the contest would be competitive.

Lower-turnout elections like Tuesday’s vote tend to draw an older and whiter electorate, which typically benefits Republicans. Also, get-out-the-vote efforts were heavily circumscribed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the candidates to virtual appearances and foreclosed door-knocking and other personal campaigning that is most effective in coaxing inattentive voters to the polls.

Still, some Democrats felt they could — and should — have won the contest, given Trump’s enormous unpopularity in California and Garcia’s unabashed support for the president.

“No excuses,” said Bob Mulholland, a veteran state political strategist, who said Democrats were too complacent and “full of themselves.”

“They let Christy Smith down,” he said.

Still, Mulholland insisted the dynamic will be different come the fall and the much larger turnout expected in November, giving Smith the chance for a do-over of sorts.

“By October, Garcia will have a Trump tattoo on his forehead,” Mulholland said. “Democrats had better not fail.”

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.