Two special elections are latest test of voting amid coronavirus

Aaron Navarro

There will be two House special elections on May 12, one for former Representative Katie Hill's seat in California and one in northwest Wisconsin for former Congressman Sean Duffy's seat. Both are seen as tests of how the coronavirus pandemic could influence elections going forward. 

In Hill's county, California's 25th District, the race could give an early snapshot into the impact the coronavirus can have on a competitive race. Republicans, who long held the seat, are hoping to gain back one of their losses from the 2018 midterms and flip a seat in the state for the first time since 1998.   In northwest Wisconsin, the short gap between the presidential primary and this election could show how poll workers are having to adjust to the new normal of increased absentee ballots ahead of a crucial swing state election in November.

CALIFORNIA'S 25TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

In 2018, Hill flipped the northern Los Angeles county seat by 8 points after Hillary Clinton's 7-point win in 2016. Democrats were just starting to cement their hold on a district that from 1992 until Hill's win, was held by a Republican.

Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who has been endorsed by Hill, won the most votes in the March 3 jungle primary with an 8% gap between her and Republican candidate, veteran Mike Garcia. But overall ballots cast for Democrats outnumbered those for Republicans by just over 2,000 votes, despite a nearly 30,000 Democrat registration advantage.

Election 2020 House California Primary Special Election

In this June 17, 2019, file photo, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, speaks in a session of the California Assembly in Sacramento, California. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

As a result, both sides considered this race competitive, even before the pandemic fundamentally changed both campaigns. 

Smith became a state assemblywoman in 2018, and her district overlaps with over half of this Congressional district. A moderate Democrat who previously served on a local school board, she racked up support from unions and California Democrats early on in the  primary race. In the March primary, Garcia beat out Steve Knight, who previously held this seat. A former Navy fighter pilot billed as a fresh "political outsider," Garcia had already filed and raised nearly $500,000 to challenge Hill before she resigned in late 2019 due to an affair with a campaign staffer.  "You've got somebody who's got a Latino last name, has served the military and who Trump is promoting. I think when you're going up against that, in terms of demographics, I could see how that would give our candidate a little bit of, 'Okay, well she's got to prove otherwise," said L.A. county Democrats chair Mark Gonzalez. The height of President Trump's involvement came in April, when Republicans jumped on a town hall clip of Smith making a joke about Garcia's military record. "Did you guys know he's a pilot?" she joked. Smith has apologized, but Mr. Trump brought up the issue in a tweet promoting Garcia: "Now she's mocking our Great Vets! We need Navy Fighter Pilot Mike Garcia in #CA25!"

US Election 2020 House California Primary Special Election

In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, photo, 25th District congressional candidate and former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia addresses supporters in Simi Valley, Calif. Michael Blood / AP

"It is a matter of fact that Donald Trump has failed to meet this moment," Smith told CBS News. She linked Garcia to Mr. Trump, saying he'll serve as a "rubber stamp" for the president. "When voters look at what is happening in Congress right now, it is clear to them who is and who isn't looking out for them and their families."

Within the same week of Mr. Trump highlighting the race, Smith received last-minute endorsements from Clinton and former President Obama. Mail ballots have been sent out since April 13, though there have been in-person voting centers open. Garcia's campaign said it is hoping the endorsement by Mr. Trump motivates the Republicans to vote, but has mainly kept the focus on Smith's vote for Assembly Bill 5, a gig-work bill that Garcia has called "unsustainable" and has connected to jobs leaving the state.  "I don't want my nation to become what this state has become, which is a victim of poor policy and poor execution," Garcia said in an April Zoom debate.  While the election has switched to an all-mail format, the specific topic of ballot collection or "harvesting" has also been a point of political contention. The state's Republican Party sued Governor Gavin Newsom over the practice, saying it's in direct conflict with his social distancing and "stay at home" order.

Early absentee ballot returns show a much higher turnout than expected for a special election, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan Political Data Inc. company. It also shows a 10,000 vote lead for Garcia, a gap Mitchell attributes to older, conservative voters tending to vote first.  "Our voter intensity is always higher," said Ventura County Republican Chair Mike Osborn. "Considering all the stuff that's going on right now, I don't see the Democrats getting real excited about this." 

After a request from the L.A. Democratic Party, the county registrar opened an additional voting center in the most diverse part of the district late Friday night. The move was immediately criticized by the National Republican Congressional Committee and Mr. Trump, who tweeted on Saturday that Smith and the Democrats are trying to "steal" the election by abruptly announcing the new centers in a Democratic-heavy area. Smith pointed to the agreement from Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris, a Republican, in opening a center.  While every registered voter was mailed a ballot, features at these locations allow voters to change their party registration or request a new ballot.

If the coronavirus pandemic stretches on until the fall and California is under a modified stay-at-home order, Mitchell says this will be the race to look at for a baseline in pandemic-era elections, and if the electorate expands in any way. "In an environment where people are ostensibly without work filling their days, they're at home as opposed to always being out and about, are less likely voters turning out voting? Potentially, simply because they're stuck at home with their ballot staring at them all day?" Mitchell said.  The money race reflects the toss-up nature of this election. Both have raised more than $2.2 million according to their latest FEC filings, and the Republican and Democratic House campaign arms have spent more than a million a piece on this race.  Any recent momentum from Garcia was supported by $600,000 in mailers and attack ads from the House GOP-backed Congressional Leadership Fund. Their Democrat counterparts, the House Majority PAC, have lain low since the March 3 primaries. They've instead kept their powder dry for November, where they say Smith is expected to have the advantage in a more Democrat-friendly electorate. But Smith said it is urgent to fill this seat now. "There are trillions of dollars being spent on public health safety and economic recovery and my district currently lacks a voice in Congress fighting for it's priorities," she told CBS. "The urgency of this moment cannot be overstated."

WISCONSIN'S 7TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Rhineland City Clerk Valerie Foley said she hasn't had a break since the April 7th presidential primary. For her and other clerks in the massive northwest congressional district, they've had to immediately shift focus to the May 12th special election. "We're not even done with this other one, we had to wait a whole week before we could finish up elections and get results," she said. "So it's hard on the officials, the clerks, it's hard on everybody." Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers held firm on going ahead with the May 12th primary date, anticipating that the nature of a special election and the rural spread of the district won't result in the same long polling lines the state saw in April.

Republican state Senator Tom Tiffany and Democrat Tricia Zunker are running to fill this seat, left vacant by Congressman Sean Duffy, who resigned for family reasons

Zunker, a local school board president and justice on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court, previously considered running for this seat in 2018. After Duffy's resignation, Zunker said she saw an opportunity to bring back the work of Democratic Congressman Dave Obey, who held the seat for 40 years. 

"The amazing constituency services that Congressman Dave Obey had here… that pretty much were eliminated with his successor... I felt a duty and an obligation to give back," she told CBS News.  Duffy took the Congressional seat in 2010, the same year Tiffany began serving as a state senator. Tiffany's experience has been crucial in his pitch to voters, emphasizing that the district needs someone to hit the ground running.   "I came in during a very difficult time in 2010, our state unemployment was almost 10%, $3 billion deficit, I came in and made the hard decisions to turn our state around. And that's the commitment I make to the voters now," he told CBS.  While other local issues like gun control, rural healthcare and redistricting have come up during their debates, their splits on how the government should respond to the coronavirus mirrors the larger debate nationwide. 

On how to reopen the state, Tiffany proposed a regional approach while Zunker warned, "Unfortunately, coronavirus does not stop at the county line." On what Congress should prioritize next, Zunker talked about making sure there are enough tests and PPE for medical workers, while Tiffany kept his focus on helping struggling agriculture businesses and dairy farmers. 

 Politically, this is a red district. Mr. Trump won by over 20 points here, leaving Tiffany confident about his chances to win or hold the seat in November. However, Zunker has received local and national support from Senators Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and if elected, would be the first Native-American to represent the state.  More than 69,000 ballots, or about 58%, of requested absentee ballots, have already been returned and the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) is expecting a higher overall turnout in the district than in April. More than 93,000 Democratic votes were cast in this district during the presidential primary, over 104,000 have been requested for this special election.  Election clerks in the 7th District have been finding workarounds for those unable to request and send in mail ballots, such as curbside voting or scheduling early vote times to cast your ballot in person. While a drop of poll workers is expected, the WEC said 240 National Guard members will be available to help.  President of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks' Association Diane Coenen said she preferred an all-mail ballot election, pointing to the health risk for poll workers and voters. Health officials in Milwaukee County released a report on Wednesday that found 54 people who either voted in-person or worked the April 7 election and were diagnosed with COVID-19. Twenty-six voters were potentially infected while voting, based on when they showed symptoms, but overall the study was "inconclusive in determining a relationship between election participation and COVID-19 spread." However, Coenen said clerks feel prepared for the May 12 election, leftover sanitation and protective equipment being provided. Still, both her and Foley described the task of balancing the absentee ballot requests and regular clerk work, such as handling liquor licenses and records requests, "exhausting." "This whole year is going to be exhausting and it has not started out very well," she told CBS News. "It is truly an overwhelming year, but they're up for the challenge." Musadiq Bidar and Adam Brewster contributed reporting.

Correction: A prior version of this article said Congressman Duffy was elected in 2010 "following some newly-drawn district lines." Redistricting occurred after Duffy was initially elected in 2010, not before.   

Trump tells CBS News reporter to "ask China" about deaths and abruptly end briefing

Mom and newborn baby leave hospital after battling coronavirus

Farm animals and therapy pets are livening up Zoom video calls