It has been tough to be a Republican lately. Polls show Trump falling further behind in his bid for reelection, the GOP’s Senate majority in major peril, and the party’s chances of retaking the House almost nil after lackluster funding and a dearth of strong challengers in swing districts Democrats flipped in 2018. But, Tuesday night, none of that seemed to matter. Republicans seemed to have flipped a Democratic (though recently Republican) seat in a state they have not flipped a seat since 19 freaking 98.
Ever since California decided to switch to an all-mail election and the bruhahaha over mail in voting nationally, it was widely assumed the move would benefit Democrats in a low turnout election. But, instead, it seems to have benefited the GOP as the overall returned ballots demographics skewed older, whiter and more Republican. These voters did not have to brave going to polling places and congregate making it more likely they would vote.
The opposite seems to have held true for Democrats who skew younger, less white and more mobile. As a result, by Tuesday, about 139,000 mail in ballots had been received and the partisan composition of the ballots were 45R/31D/22I.
Democrats seemed to have sensed something was wrong weeks ago and began to downplay expectations after earlier arguing the seat was a barometer for November. Now, as losing parties do, Democrats argue the lower turnout nature of the election benefited the GOP. That’s great, except lower turnout benefited them in WI – 7 (Republicans won the special election Tuesday by 15 points vs. 22 in 2018) and the estimated 34 percent turnout in CA – 25 was particularly high for a special election.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on the in-person vote (not yet tallied) and late mail-in ballots. Under California law, ballots can be counted up to three days after the election as long as they are post-marked received by Election Day. This rule helped Democrats significantly in 2018 and in almost every seat the party took from the GOP that year swung their way due to late receiving ballots (and ballot-harvesting).
The problem with this hope is it would require Democrats to absolutely clean up on the late vote. For example, in 2018, former Congressman Steve Knight and then candidate Katie Hill were tied on election night. She eventually pulled ahead after and won by nine points.
The situation now is remarkably different. After all the mail-in ballots were received Tuesday, Garcia held a 12 point lead. For Smith, the Democratic nominee, to overcome this would require the composition of the late ballots to have to be over 60 percent Democrat and full of Democratic leaning Independents.
Locally, the election results are remarkable. Republican ranks in diversifying and suburban/exurban districts have been decimated under the President. Further, CA has been the one nut the party has never been able to crack in taking a single Democratic seat in over two decades. Meanwhile, Democrats strongly eroded the GOP’s ranks in the state delegation from 19 to 7.
This was not the easiest seat for the GOP to retake, regardless of its local GOP roots. Whites make up a bare plurality of the district’s voters and Democrats now enjoy a 30,000 voter registration advantage.
This contest does show candidate quality matters. Christy Smith (D), despite her local roots, was an uninspiring candidate who had a muddled message and was tied to the dysfunction of the state capitol (as a former state rep). Further, Garcia’s message focusing on taxes and affordability hit Smith on an issue still pertinent to the left leaning district’s voters. Knowing the district’s GOP base lies in several outlying military bases, he played up his military record and avoided getting entangled in debates over Trump and Biden.
For Republicans looking for any good news right now the results hint at Republicans being more excited to vote for November (though Garcia and Trump are remarkably different candidates). Even WI – 7’s special shows the party has not lost support in its rural base (improving from a seven point edge in the recent state supreme court race to fifteen points Tuesday).
Democrats don’t have much to be happy about. They are left with a bunch of what-ifs and even though they may be right the district will swing back in November, with a presidential race on the ballot bringing up turnout, the facts they struggle to mobilize their voters, even after making it easier for them to vote and a mere six months out from sending a message to Trump, speaks volumes. Democrats may win this seat back in November even with anemic turnout, but if the contest is reflective of suburban Congressional districts across the county, Trump and Senate Republicans actually have a much better shot than current polls show.
Tuesday night was a decidedly good night for the Grand Old Party. They needed it! And maybe, just maybe, it will make the mainstream media stop jumping on the blue wave/Trump is doomed bandwagon.