California 25: Legitimate Opportunity or Mirage?

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 28, 2019 · 1:52 PM EDT

A Democratic House member resigns but is it really at risk of a Republican takeover?

Less than a year after getting elected to Congress, Democratic Rep. Katie Hill announced her resignation from California’s 25th District amidst allegations of inappropriate relationships with staffers. On one hand, it’s easy to see why Republicans might be excited about the special election, considering they held the seat for a quarter of a century not that long ago. But there’s little indication that it’s currently a serious GOP opportunity.

Less than two months ago, Republicans struggled to hold North Carolina’s 9th District, which President Donald Trump carried by more than 10 points in 2016. Republicans spent more than $6 million in Dan Bishop’s 2-point special election victory, and Bishop (51 percent) struggled to reach Trump’s 54 percent mark.

Now Republicans are presented with California’s 25th District, which includes suburbs north of Los Angeles, where Hillary Clinton won 50-44 percent. Republicans don’t currently hold any district in the country where Clinton topped 50 percent or a district that Clinton won by as large of a margin. (Clinton won New York’s 24th District by nearly four points and it’s represented by GOP Rep. John Katko.)

There’s scant evidence that the political environment in California or nationally has improved for Republicans since Hill first won her seat in 2018, when she defeated GOP Rep. Steve Knight by 9 points. And history is working against the GOP. Republicans haven’t taken over a Democratic House seat anywhere in California since 1998. (Republicans won two open seats that cycle.)

According to Roll Call's Bridget Bowman, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom will have 14 calendar days after Hill's resignation to issue a proclamation for the special election to be held within 140 days.

While open seats and vacant seats are generally regarded as better takeover opportunities because incumbents are re-elected at a high rate, Hill’s departure may make it easier for Democrats because they can rally behind a candidate without the salacious headlines.

On the Democratic side, state Assemblywoman Christy Smith announced her campaign on Monday. She represents more than half of the congressional district in the Legislature. 

Secretary of State Alex Padilla is a potential candidate. It would be a “free ride” for him (he wouldn’t have to give up his position) and he has some Democrats excited. But he’s long had his eye on the Senate, and could wait until Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein doesn’t run for re-election in 2024. State Sen. Henry Stern and 2016 nominee/2018 candidate Bryan Caforio are mentioned as well. 

On the Republican side, multiple Republicans were already challenging Hill including Navy veteran Mike Garcia (who had $322,000 in the bank on Sept. 30) and Lancaster City Council Member Angela Underwood-Jacobs ($188,000). It’s too early to know who or how many Republicans will also run in the special election. Former Rep. Steve Knight indicated interest in running for his former seat. He’d enter the race with pre-existing name ID that’s hard to come by in a district covered by the expensive Los Angeles media market, but he also lost the seat handily a year ago. 

The media market is a factor in the race. Republicans will have to weigh spending millions of dollars combating the partisan trend to win a difficult seat they will have difficulty holding less than a year later in the regular 2020 elections. Their task could be even more difficult if the initial jungle primary is scheduled on the same day as the March 3 Democratic presidential primary, which will likely have historic Democratic turnout with an important nomination on the line.

If no candidate receives 50 percent in the initial special election primary, the top two finishers, regardless of party advance to a general election to be held within 180 days. That could mean a second expensive race for Republicans in order to secure the seat. 

Based on the partisan trend of the district, political environment, and Hill’s strength as a fundraiser (she had $1.5 million on Sept. 30), we’ve had the race rated as Likely Democratic since the beginning of the cycle. While the allegations and resignation through some uncertainty in the race, the partisan trends and political environment are still virtually unchanged. And for now, so is our rating. We continued to rate the race as Likely Democratic.