A former Navy combat pilot built a double-digit lead in the fight for an open congressional seat north of Los Angeles, California, positioning Republicans to capture a Democratic-held congressional district that state for the first time in more than two decades.
Political newcomer Mike Garcia had a 12-point edge over Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in Tuesday’s special election for the swing 25th District. An unknown number of ballots remained uncounted and Los Angeles County, where most of them are located, was not expected to update its tally until Friday.
California routinely counts large numbers of votes after election day, and mail ballots can arrive as late as Friday and still be counted if they were postmarked by election day.
With about 143,000 ballots tallied – almost all of them mail-in ballots – Garcia had 56 percent of the vote. All voters received mailed ballots because of the coronavirus outbreak, though a sprinkling of polling places were available for those who wanted to vote in person.
Garcia stopped short of claiming victory in a conference call with supporters but said, “Things are looking very encouraging”.
In a statement, Smith thanked her supporters and said she was looking forward “to seeing a thorough counting of the remaining ballots”.
The contest took on outsized importance as the only competitive House race in the country in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. It is seen nationally as a proxy vote on President Donald Trump’s leadership and a possible harbinger for November elections.
Trump, who lost the district that runs through a swath of suburbs and small ranches in 2016, urged voters to support the political newcomer Garcia, while
former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats backed Smith.
If Garcia holds on it would provide a jolt of encouragement for the state’s beleaguered GOP, which has been drifting towards obscurity in California for years.
The seat became vacant last year after the resignation of Democratic Representative Katie Hill, who stepped down after admitting to an affair with a campaign worker and the US House opened an ethics probe into an allegation that she was involved with a member of her congressional staff, which Hill denied.
Garcia appeared to benefit from enthusiasm among conservatives who saw a rare opportunity to seize a Democratic-held seat in California. The last time that happened was 1998.
A win by Garcia would establish him as the incumbent for November and show Republicans can compete in a district where Trump was defeated by Clinton in 2016. Trump lost the state by over four million votes in 2016.
With a national debate under way on mail-in voting, the race will also serve as a window into how the process works out, albeit on a small scale.