For all the Republican howling of late about mail balloting, we have now had our first two all mail ballot elections in California, and guess what, Republicans won both: a State Senate seat in Riverside County and a congressional district in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties that Democrats had won in 2018.
Republicans from President Trump and strategist Karl Rove on down were certain Democrats would somehow steal the congressional election. But in a district carried by seven points by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and nine points by the Democrats in 2018, Republican Mike Garcia won by 10 points on Tuesday.
The dog didn’t bark, the bee didn’t sting, the fat lady didn’t sing. So what happened?
Well, first, candidates and issues do matter. There had to be a special election in this Antelope Valley Simi Valley district because the first term Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill got herself embroiled in a rather torrid sex scandal and had to resign. The Democratic establishment anointed one term Assemblywoman Christy Smith for the seat, but in the March primary she ran poorly, showing that the voters were less than enthralled with the party’s choice, and perhaps turned off by the conduct of former Democratic Congresswoman Hill.
But the biggest factor was that Republicans rallied behind a very strong candidate, Mike Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot in a district with lots of retired military, and a first generation Mexican American in a district with a growing Latino middle class. He simply fit the district much better.
But what about the Republican argument that all mail elections are ripe with fraud and Democratic ballot harvesting? This election was 96 percent mail ballots, more than any election in California history. From the first mail ballots to arrive at the voter registrars’ offices, it was clear that Republicans were returning their ballots, Democrats were not. Despite a Democratic voter registration edge, 10,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats; they were enthusiastic for their candidate, Democrats were not.
And the turnout was very high for a special election, when all the ballots are counted it will be nearly as high as it was in the primary. So it was not just a handful of GOP voters that won the race for Garcia.
So what does this tell us about the fall election? In the special election, Democrats had tried to make Trump’s endorsement of Garcia the central issue, but in 2016, incumbent GOP Congressman Steve Knight (who lost to Hill in 2018) outran Trump by 10 points. Christy Smith actually lost her race for Assembly that year while Clinton carried her Assembly district. So there are, in this area at least, ticket splitters who may not like Trump but will vote for a strong local Republican. Just running against Trump is not a sure winner.
Issues do matter. Smith had voted for AB 5, the independent contractor bill very unpopular in the gig economy, and Garcia used that effectively against her. Smith may be forced to take more unpopular votes as California claws its way out of the fiscal crisis, such as for a tax increase.
At the same time, Garcia must make sure he is not just a Trump clone; he has to show some independence, as Trump will surely lose this district to Joe Biden. He now holds perhaps the most Democratic district of any GOP Congressman. But he has two advantages that separate him from Trump; he is a military combat veteran and he is a Latino in a district with growing Latino population.
So what about vote by mail? We saw in this district, and in the Riverside Senate race, that Republicans like voting by mail rather than searching for a place to vote in person. Older voters are most used to communicating by mail, so they are more likely to take the time to fill out their ballots. In 2018, Republican incumbents had to explain a very unpopular vote, forced on California Republicans by then Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), to repeal Obamacare and its protection against pre-existing conditions.
Many older voters in the seven GOP Congressional districts they lost resented this. It was not the mail balloting, even the Democrats’ successful ballot harvesting, that did them in, it was their own stupidity.
Republicans should be encouraging mail voting, and make sure, as they did in this congressional race, that their people get their ballots in the mail.