North of Los Angeles, Two Republicans Chart Different Paths for Political Survival

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Senator Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), then an Assemblyman, speaks during debate over the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on June 15, 2015. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

In northern Los Angeles County, a natural political experiment is playing out in one of the state's fiercest electoral battlegrounds.

A pair of Santa Clarita Republicans, freshman Congressman Mike Garcia and state Sen. Scott Wilk, are charting different political paths as they try to defend seats in two overlapping swing districts.

Wilk is seeking a second term in the state Senate after two terms in the Assembly. He's among the most moderate members of the legislature and crossed over to vote with Democrats on a number of high profile bills during the last legislative session.

Garcia is running for election to a full term in the House of Representatives. He won a special House election in May, flipping a newly Democratic seat back to Republican control. Buoyed by an endorsement from President Donald Trump, Garcia has stood by the president and largely aligned himself with the GOP minority in the House.

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The shared territory between the 25th Congressional district and the 21st state Senate district, and the differences between Garcia and Wilk's campaigns could create a "ticket-splitting" scenario, in which voters choose Wilk, but not Garcia, or vice versa, said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman.

"It will be interesting to see what happens," he said. "If Garcia were to lose and Wilk were to win, with Wilk outperforming Garcia within the overlaying area ... it could be an indication of the more veteran and better known politician who has had more chance to deliver constituent services, like Wilk, outperforming a new federal candidate."

"It also may indicate that voters are looking at how the state is governed separately from how they're looking at national politics," Stutzman said. 

The Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys are going through a political transition. These exurbs of Los Angeles have grown and diversified, and transplants from the city of Los Angeles have helped turn the traditionally conservative High Desert into an electoral battleground — home to more liberal cities like Lancaster and Palmdale and purple suburbs like Santa Clarita.

The 25th Congressional District and 21st State Senate District cover both valleys, with the congressional district map stretching west into Ventura County, and the senate district spanning east to cover parts of the Apple Valley. Democrats now hold a roughly seven-point registration advantage over Republicans in both districts.

The leftward shifts were evident in 2018, when Democrats claimed the 25th Congressional District as part of the "Blue Wave," with Katie Hill knocking off incumbent Republican Steve Knight.

Last year, Hill resigned from the seat amid a sex scandal, and in a May special election held to fill the seat, Republican businessman Mike Garcia defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith by an impressive ten-point margin.

Garcia was bolstered in that race by late support from President Donald Trump, who tweeted multiple endorsements of the former Navy fighter pilot in the closing days of the campaign. And despite the headwinds facing Trump and the Republican Party in his district, Garcia has done little to break with party orthodoxy during his five months in Washington.

According to FiveThirtyEight's tracker of key votes in Congress, Garcia has sided with Trump on 10 of 11 major votes during his brief time in the House, including votes against Democratic-led bills on police reform, infrastructure funding and health care subsidies.

Based on Trump's performance in the 25th district during the 2016 election, the model expects Garcia to side with Trump's position on just 9% of votes. The difference between Garcia's expected and actual alignment with Trump (which FiveThirtyEight calls the "Trump plus-minus") comes out to 81.8% — the highest mark of any Congressmember during Trump's time in the White House.

Beyond his votes, Garcia has avoided the kind of delicate criticism of the president voiced by Steve Knight, the Republican who held the seat from 2015-2019.

"I would say a candidate like Garcia has committed to a strategy that his reelection becomes reliant upon the president likely winning that congressional district," Stutzman said. "He has decided not only does he have nowhere to hide from the president, but let's go all in and try to optimize and basically run a base election strategy."

At the only general election debate between Garcia and Smith, held last week by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, Garcia defended his independence and votes on legislation like the $1.5 billion infrastructure bill, which he said "would have raised our taxes and made our lives more painful."

"I’m loyal to my country," Garcia said. "I don’t have loyalties to my party, I don’t have loyalties to any individuals." 

Though he represents many of the same communities as Garcia, Scott Wilk has positioned himself as a moderate in the California State Senate.

An analysis conducted by CalMatters at the start of the legislative session in 2019 found that Wilk had the highest percentage of bills co-authored with a member of the opposing party of any legislator in the Capitol.

He continued to work across the aisle this year, voting with Democrats to ban police officers from using chokeholds and carotid restraints, and casting the Senate's only Republican vote in favor of placing Proposition 16 and Proposition 17 on the ballot, which would end California's ban on affirmative action and restore voting rights for parolees, respectively.

In 2019, Wilk received the highest rating given to a Republican on legislative scorecards published by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the California Federation of Teachers and Planned Parenthood.

Wilk described his style as working "to try to get to yes," in an interview last month with KHTS.

"I work with the majority party when they’re right and I oppose or try to get things amended when they’re wrong to bring better policies to Sacramento," Wilk said. "Because honestly I think bipartisan solutions are the best and the longest lasting."

Mike Garcia is running for Congress in the 25th District. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The differences between the political climate in Congress and the state Legislature could rationalize the approaches of Wilk and Garcia for voters, said Mark Hershey, a Republican activist in Santa Clarita, who says he fully supports both candidates.

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"Garcia does align himself with Trump, but I think it's mostly that he aligns himself with the principles that the president has: protect the border, smaller taxes, strong military," said Hershey, who chairs the GOP's 38th Assembly District Central Committee.

"To get stuff done Wilk has got to reach across because it's a [Democratic] supermajority," Hershey said. "So he has to kind of blend with them and he's very good at it."

But Wilk's bipartisan efforts haven't shielded him from a fierce challenge from Democratic candidate Kipp Mueller, who has called out Wilk's past opposition to gun control legislation.

And the very same groups that gave Wilk a positive rating for his votes, including the California Federation of Teachers and Planned Parenthood, have donated to Mueller's campaign.

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