Democrat Christy Smith concedes to Republican Mike Garcia in election to fill Katie Hill's seat

Arit John
Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith were competing in a congressional race that both sides rated a toss-up.  (Associated Press)

Democrat Christy Smith has conceded to Republican Mike Garcia in the election to fill former Rep. Katie Hill's seat, marking the first time the GOP has flipped a blue California congressional district since 1998.

Garcia, a defense industry executive, was ahead of Smith, a state Assemblywoman from Santa Clarita, by double digits in early returns.

"While it's critical that we ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor in the May 12 special election," Smith wrote in statement posted to Facebook. "As such, I'd like to congratulate him."

The final tally in the nearly all mail-in ballot contest won't be available for several days — ballots postmarked by Tuesday and received by end of day Friday will be counted. The 25th Congressional District includes Palmdale, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley and part of Lancaster.

The district was in Republican hands for decades until the 2018 midterm election, when a blue wave netted Democrats 40 seats nationwide.

"I'm proud of the results so far, and look forward to hopefully declaring victory very soon," Garcia said on a call with supporters and the media on Tuesday night.

In the weeks leading up to the election, both parties acknowledged the race would be competitive, despite Democrats' 6.6-point voter registration advantage. Lower turnout elections like Tuesday's runoff tend to draw an older and whiter electorate, usually to the advantage of Republicans.

The coronavirus outbreak also put an end to traditional campaigning and get out the vote efforts such as door knocking and rallies. Both candidates have alluded to the pandemic in their ads: Garcia accused Smith of failing to use her position leading an emergency management committee in Sacramento to respond to COVID-19, and Smith criticized his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and tied him to President Trump, who endorsed him, and his response to the virus.

Garcia will go to Washington to complete Hill's term, which ends in January 2021, while also campaigning for the Nov. 3 general election for a new term. Smith and Garcia are competing in that race as well.

Hill resigned in October 2019 after nude photos of her were leaked and she was accused of having an affair with a congressional staffer, a violation of House ethics rules. She has denied the allegation.

There were seven in-person vote centers in Los Angeles County and two in Ventura County, as well as more than two dozen vote-by-mail drop boxes. By mid-afternoon Tuesday only 200 voters had visited the in-person voting centers at the Simi Valley Public Library and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Ventura County.

Democrats say Smith will fare better in November, when the presidential election will boost turnout.

But even as Democrats expressed confidence about November, some said the party's complacency blew a chance to win the seat Tuesday and put Garcia back on his heels.

"No excuses," said Bob Mulholland, a veteran California political strategist and member of the Democratic National Committee. Democrats, he said, "were too full of themselves" and "they let Christy Smith down."

That said, Mulholland went on, the dynamic will be different come the fall, giving Democrats the chance for a do-over of sorts. "By October, Garcia will have a Trump tattoo on his forehead," Mulholland said, and — given the president's overwhelming unpopularity in the state — "Democrats had better not fail."

Smith, a former school board member, quickly became the party's favorite to take Hill's place. In 2018 she beat a Republican incumbent to win her assembly district, which overlaps with 60 percent of the 25th Congressional District. Despite a crowded Democratic field in the March 3 primary, she easily advanced to the May 12 runoff. Garcia beat Knight to come in second.

In the weeks leading up to the race, both candidates have been backed by prominent figures in their parties. Smith has been endorsed by former President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In addition to Trump, Garcia has been backed by former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.