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What Special Election In California's 25th District Might Mean For General Election


History could be made here in California tomorrow, specifically in this state's 25th district, where there is a special election. Republican Mike Garcia looks like he could beat Democrat Christy Smith. It would be the first time Republicans gain a House seat in California in 20 years. Often, these special elections can indicate what might happen in November, but in this case, Nathan Gonzalez says, not so fast. He's the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, and he joins us now to explain.


NATHAN GONZALES: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So it looks like as of now, Republican Mike Garcia is favored to win tomorrow. You have said that he's widely regarded as just the better candidate of the two. Explain why that is.

GONZALES: Yeah. I mean, Mike Garcia is a retired Navy fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq running against Christy Smith, who's a former school board member and a current member of the state assembly. And Garcia has effectively been able to run as the outsider, and what's remarkable is that the messaging on the Republican side and from the Garcia campaign hasn't been demonizing, you know, Speaker Pelosi or some of these other Democrats. It's about connecting Smith to Sacramento and being a politician and on broader stances. And also, Smith - you know, the - both campaigns and candidates are adapting to this coronavirus reality. And one of the gaffes of the campaign was during a video town hall, when Smith, the Democrat, seemed to downplay Garcia's military service. And that just that has not helped her in the race.

CHANG: Right. Well, if Christy Smith does lose tomorrow, are the Democrats going to stick with her in November - I mean, have her run again?

GONZALES: I mean, they have to.

CHANG: Yeah.

GONZALES: The primary is already over, and usually, when a party loses a special election, the playbook is that you're supposed to blame the candidate, throw the candidate under the bus. But they can't because Smith is the nominee again, and she has a legitimate chance of winning in November. One of the things that's driving this election is that the electorate is different. Democrats are struggling to turn out nonwhite voters, lower-propensity voters in a collection that is not on the regular schedule. But when the presidential race is on the ballot, turnout's going to be higher. Democratic turnout is going to be higher. And so Smith could lose this week and also win in November.

CHANG: So given that if Garcia does win tomorrow and Republicans retake this district in California at least temporarily, why do you say that we should not read too much into that in terms of the overall likelihood of a Republican takeover of the House in November?

GONZALES: Right. So it will temporarily change the math from Republicans needing a net gain of 18 seats to needing 17 seats. But it's going to be tough to replicate what's going on right now in this district nationwide in November. You know, Garcia has been able to fundraise at parity with Smith. But in the competitive districts around the country in November, Democratic incumbents that Republicans need to defeat have 2 to 1, 5 to 1, sometimes 10 to 1 campaign cash advantages. And I also don't expect some of those Democratic incumbents who are more seasoned in being in the spotlight to make some of the mistakes that Smith has made in this particular race.

CHANG: OK. Well, obviously, voting is going to be very different tomorrow because we're still in the middle of a pandemic. There will be a lot of voting by mail. What do you think we'll even know about results by end of tomorrow?

GONZALES: The biggest takeaway from this election is going to be patience because the vast majority of these ballots will be cast by mail. They only have to be postmarked by Election Day and have to reach county officials three days - you know, three days later, and they will be counted. And I think this is where - this is what we're going to see nationwide in November, and it's very possible we won't know the results of this election on Tuesday in November. It may be days or weeks before we know what happens.

CHANG: Nathan Gonzalez from Inside Elections, thank you very much.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.