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How the Pandemic Is Shaping California's First Coronavirus-Era Election

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Mike Garcia and Christy Smith, in a virtual Congressional Candidate Forum, hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce on April 24, 2020.  (Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce)

The first California election of the coronavirus era is set to take place in the valleys north of Los Angeles, where Republicans are looking to reverse their recent string of electoral misfortunes.

Up for grabs in the May 12 special election is a highly coveted vacant House seat in the 25th Congressional District, one that Democrats recently flipped. The unique timing and circumstances of the race, brought on by the high-profile resignation of former Rep. Katie Hill, a Santa Clarita Democrat who defeated Republican incumbent Steve Knight in 2018, has drawn national interest and big-name endorsements.

And with Californians sheltering in their homes since mid-March, both candidates have run almost their entire campaigns virtually.

The swing district was already among the most competitive in California. Now, the outbreak of COVID-19 is reframing the campaign messages of Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia. Meanwhile the state's stay-at-home order is requiring the election to take place almost exclusively through mail-in ballots.

“It’s certainly been unusual," said Smith, a state assemblywoman whose current district overlaps with a majority of the congressional district she's vying to represent. "I'm a traditional candidate who likes doing a fair amount of door knocking, and not having that opportunity to do that, to host in-person town halls, to really get a feel for where the voters are in this moment has presented a unique set of challenges."

In 2018, Democrats picked up seven House seats in California — running campaigns that attacked Republican incumbents for their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Katie Hill, among that group, resigned her seat in October amid allegations of an improper sexual relationship with a congressional aide (which she denied) and after conservative outlets published nude photos of her.

In the special election to fill Hill's seat, Democrats are again running on a platform to expand health care coverage. The spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives in Los Angeles County, has further clarified the issue's importance, Smith said.

"Easy access to health care is a huge priority for me, as is adding a public option," Smith said. "I think this moment, more than any other in my lifetime, certainly speaks to the need for everybody to be able to have health care as a human right."

Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot, who declined to be interviewed, has advocated for repealing the Affordable Care Act. In a 2019 interview with "The Talk of Santa Clarita" podcast, he called it "flawed enough to start over."

In response, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent nearly $1 million on a local cable ad attacking Garcia's health care positions, while declaring that "more than ever, we need a leader who will put our health and safety first."

But eager to retake the seat, Republicans are leveraging the coronavirus-induced economic crash to sharpen their focus on Smith's most controversial vote in the state Legislature: her support of Assembly Bill 5, which limits the number of California workers who are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees.

"We need to make it easier right now for the gig economy to restart — to have independent contractors be able to go to work in whatever capacity they can during the stay at home," Garcia said last week, during the lone debate of the special election campaign, which took place via video conference.

An ad buy from the National Republican Congressional Committee on cable and broadcast TV slammed Smith for "threatening jobs" with her vote, and asked voters to "imagine her recklessness during these frightening times."

During the debate, Smith responded that if companies aren't classifying workers as employees, they aren't paying into "the very critical programs that we are trying to utilize in this exact moment, like our state’s unemployment insurance."

Holding elected office has given Smith opportunities to project leadership during the pandemic. She's held volunteer events in the district and was among the bipartisan group of assemblymembers who convened in Sacramento last week to demand more say in how Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration is spending money in response to the crisis — moves her campaign was quick to tout in an ad unveiled on Wednesday.

"It's a time when what we need is leaders who are willing to step up and roll up their sleeves and get to work," Smith said. "And so when I was called by my local senior center to say, 'Hey, could you come spend an afternoon with us handing out meals for our Meals on Wheels program?' I was all in."


But Republicans have questioned Smith's leadership ability by pointing to the cancellation of a March 4 hearing of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, which she chairs. The meeting was scheduled to review an audit detailing the state's ability to respond to natural disasters.

"I think you've seen Christy Smith absolutely fail to lead on coronavirus," said NRCC spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair. "She could have changed the meeting for it to be focused on the coronavirus."

Smith said the committee has no direct oversight over the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which has taken a leading role in the state's pandemic response.

The spread of the coronavirus and the state's subsequent stay-at-home order have precipitated more dramatic changes in how the election will be conducted — and in the ways both sides have tried to reach voters during a condensed campaign calendar.

Under an executive order signed by Newsom in late March, every voter in the 25th District will receive a mail-in ballot with a postage-paid return envelope.

Both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, where the seat resides, will also offer limited opportunities for in-person voting.

Although recent studies have suggested that neither party necessarily benefits from all-mail elections, Democrats familiar with the district worry that a special election conducted predominately by mail will produce an older and whiter electorate that is more friendly to Garcia. It could also make a surge in turnout unlikely in the more Democratic cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, which were key to Hill's 2018 victory.

"With the coronavirus, I think health care will be an issue. But that’s not what’s going to affect it, it’s going to be turnout," said Steve Fox, the former Democratic assemblyman from Lancaster. "Republicans tend to vote by mail, they’re going to have a higher turnout because of that. Democrats are not going to come out during this virus."

Recent data on vote-by-mail patterns in the 25th District back that up.

With a little less than two weeks before the election, 29% of Republicans have returned their ballots — compared to 18% of Democrats, according to Political Data, Inc., a voter information firm.

In the March primary, Democratic voters in the district mailed back just 23% of ballots they received, compared with 33% sent back by Republican mail voters, a trend also reflected in the 2018 general election.

Motivating voters to send in their ballots has taken on a different look since California's stay-at-home order went into effect — just weeks after Smith and Garcia finished atop the March 3 primary.

”Like so many people are, we're doing all kinds of Zoom get togethers, and we're using the telephone quite a bit more than we ever had before," Smith said. "So it has absolutely changed the way that we operate."

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Conversations with supporters that might have taken place in living rooms or on canvass walks just months ago are now happening virtually — accompanied by the typical pitfalls. On Wednesday, Smith released an apology for comments she made about Garcia's military service that were captured on a video conference with supporters.

Garcia's campaign is also investing in phone banking to reach voters at home, said Mark Hershey, a local Republican activist, who chairs the GOP's 38th Assembly District Central Committee.

Hershey said President Trump's enthusiastic endorsement of Garcia could also help drive Republicans to vote in the special election.

"[Knight's campaign] tried to stay noncommittal, and the Trump voters probably didn't come out like they could or should or would have if they had been more supportive," Hershey said.

But Smith questions that logic.

"I don't think it's an endorsement that helps that much," Smith said. "The president lost this district resoundingly in 2016, and I don't think voters have gained any affinity for him, particularly in the moment of this crisis, where the response has not only been lackluster, but it has put more Americans at risk."

As voter mobilization is pursued virtually, the two parties have also sparred over the California law that allows voters to designate someone else to return their ballot.

Republicans have called on Newsom to suspend what they call the "ballot harvesting" law in order to maintain physical distancing, but a spokesman for the California Secretary of State's Office confirmed that the practice will remain on the books.

Despite the millions spent by both parties on the special election, the outcome could have little impact on the November rematch between Garcia and Smith, who will again face off in the general election for the full two-year term beginning in January.

The ongoing spread and evolving toll of the coronavirus could reshape voter perceptions and necessitate changes to how the November election is conducted. And unlike a special election in May, the presidential election in November will have a higher voter turnout, which typically helps Democrats.

And whoever is elected in May will likely have to go on the record with positions on a range of issues responding to the pandemic. Votes on bills to provide aid to state and local governments or legislation on liability protections to shield hospitals and businesses from lawsuits could provide fodder for a whole new round of attack ads come fall.


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