CHIRLA canvassers Nancy Zaragoza (left) and Karen Díaz speak with voters in Palmdale, on Sept. 21, 2022. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)
At an outdoor cafe in suburban Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, two women chatting over coffee one recent afternoon said abortion rights would be a key factor in their voting decisions in the upcoming midterm elections.
“In the '70s, this battle was already fought,” said acupuncturist Margaret Whipple, 69, who came of age before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision affirming the constitutional right to abortion, and then watched the court overturn it earlier this year. “Now, my question is, why would we be going backwards?”
Both Whipple and her companion, Helena Oda, 31, a film industry prop maker, said they’d previously voted Republican, but will be voting for Democratic candidate Christy Smith for Congress in next month's election.
“I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't stand up for women's rights,” Oda said.
In this purple congressional district, these are the voters Smith is hoping will put her over the top in her rematch with Republican incumbent Mike Garcia, who beat her by just 333 votes in 2020. This time around, though, abortion rights — and Latino identity — are shaping up to be decisive issues.
The contest is one of a handful of competitive races in California that will help decide which party controls the House of Representatives, where Democrats are trying to cling to their paper-thin majority.
Republicans have represented this area for most of the past three decades. But after last year’s redistricting process, Democrats have a 12-point voter registration advantage in the new 27th Congressional District, which includes affluent Santa Clarita and the predominantly working-class cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in the Antelope Valley.
Garcia, for his part, has been a staunch Donald Trump ally, and on Jan. 6, 2021, voted to not certify Joe Biden’s presidential victory. In an August interview with a conservative podcast host, Garcia likened the Biden administration to Hitler’s Third Reich in response to the FBI’s search for classified documents at former President Trump’s Florida residence. (He apologized for those remarks at a Santa Clarita synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, earlier this month.)
A third of eligible voters in this district are Latino. But unlike most other parts of the state, where Latinos vote solidly Democratic, here they tend to be a bit more conservative, said Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. And that could work to the benefit of Garcia, whose father emigrated from Mexico.
“Given the voter registration numbers and the trends, this is clearly a Democratic seat,” Guerra said. “However, having so many Latinos and having the Republican nominee be Latino … Garcia might shave off enough Latino voters to change the dynamics. And that's why this race is a toss-up.”
Guerra said the stakes are high because the election will have national impact.
“If the Democrats capture this district, they will have a chance to keep the House,” said Guerra. “If they lose this district, there is no way that Democrats can keep the House. That is the bottom line.”
Door-to-door drive for new Latino voters
In a Latino neighborhood in southeast Palmdale, where sagebrush and tumbleweed grow in vacant lots, María Elena Ibarra said the fact that Garcia is Mexican American, as she is, doesn’t count for a lot.
“No,” she laughed in Spanish. “He’s not supporting Latinos. I think he’s lost touch with his roots.”
Ibarra is a canvasser with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), which has been going door to door all year as part of a long-term grassroots campaign to turn out voters in the Antelope Valley and push for policies — and politicians — that benefit immigrant communities.
On this day in late September, Ibarra was one of nine canvassers in black CHIRLA T-shirts knocking on doors to ask voters on their list whether they had a plan to vote. Closer to the election, they’ll switch to working for CHIRLA’s Action Fund, and campaign directly for candidates the group has endorsed, including Smith.
“A lot of people don’t realize that even a single vote can make a difference,” Ibarra said. “I want to motivate them.”
For Ibarra, a mother of three, the most important issue in this election is education, specifically making college affordable for families like hers. Overall, she believes Democrats better represent her community.
On abortion, it’s not so much that she’s in favor of it, but believes it’s a personal decision.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different,” Ibarra said. “And every woman should be free to make her own decision when it comes to her body.”
That view puts her in line with two-thirds of California Latinos — and three-quarters of California women — who favor protecting abortion rights, according to a recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
Karen Díaz, CHIRLA’s deputy director of civic engagement, said that, unlike most political campaigns, which focus on turning out reliable voters, her group is working to build a voter base from scratch.
“We focus on voters that have only voted one out of the last five elections,” she said. “People who just became new citizens. People who just turned 18 years old. That’s our voter base.”
A pivotal district
The national political parties also are investing energy in this race.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put Smith in their “Red to Blue” program, opening a field office in the district and providing her with organizational and fundraising support, said Madison Mundy, a DCCC spokesperson.
Smith raised nearly $1.7 million in the three months ending September 30, making her one of the nation’s top fundraisers for the quarter among House Democratic challengers. That brings Smith’s total fundraising to $3 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The Republican National Committee also has set up shop in the district, with a campaign office focused on Latino voters. At its strip-mall storefront in Palmdale one evening in late September, volunteers were making calls in Spanish and English to Republican households.
“What would you say is the biggest issue facing our country?” José Alanís, regional field director for the California Republican Party, asked a voter in Spanish. “The economy? For sure.”
Nationally, Republicans have gained significant ground with Latino voters since the last midterm elections, according to a tracking poll by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. And the GOP is hoping to duplicate that in this race.
“Latino voters are perceiving Republicans as less hostile towards them compared to 2018, and Republican outreach to Latino voters is at its highest level in our five weeks of polling,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund.
Both polls found that the rising cost of living is a top concern for Latino voters.
That’s true for Lulu Vega, 70, who sells used housewares. She said her grocery bill has skyrocketed and, living on Social Security, it’s tough to make ends meet.
“We are in a really deep problem,” said Vega on a recent morning at the Santa Clarita Swap Meet, where she had set up her booth. “I was against Trump, but when Trump was in charge, the economy was nice. Now? It's really, really hard.”
But Vega said she usually just votes in presidential elections and isn’t planning to cast a ballot this year because she hasn’t been following the candidates or the issues.
Competing priorities: abortion and the economy
At a Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce gathering in late September, to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, economic worries were not a driving force. There, at a historic adobe in a leafy park, Latino businesspeople hobnobbed over tacos and drinks, and chatted with local elected officials.
Winery owner Robert Reyes said he’s a conservative Christian and he’ll vote for Mike Garcia because he likes his values.
“He is a hard worker, somebody who really puts his heart into what he does,” Reyes said. “That’s what I love about him.”
But for many women in the crowd, abortion was a pivotal issue.
“I just think women have a right to choose, you know, with their bodies,” said Jenori Galicia, who works in fundraising for a network of nonprofit health centers.
She heaved a sigh. “It's a big issue,” she said.
Galicia said she’s still learning about the candidates, but considers herself a Democrat and plans to vote.
In addition to pushing pro-abortion-rights voters like Galicia toward the Democratic candidate, there’s also an indirect way the issue of abortion rights could factor into this election, said political data analyst Paul Mitchell.
“Every day that abortion crowds out inflation and the economy and Joe Biden from the news is probably a better day for Democrats and a worse day for Republicans,” he said. “Mike Garcia wants this to be a referendum on Biden and the economy. And it's possible that this election could turn into a referendum on choice and Trump.”
Either way, the outcome of this close contest will come down to which side can more effectively motivate voters to cast their ballots.
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.