NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A few months ago, not many political analysts thought the Republicans had a shot at winning back the House seat that Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill vacated in November following a sex scandal. The district swung toward Democrats in recent years, the Democrats were united behind a candidate, and Republicans were divided.
But the district’s new Republican congressman, Mike Garcia — a 44-year-old former Navy pilot who flew more than 30 combat missions in the second Iraq war — knows a thing or two about catching others by surprise. “Sometimes being under the radar is the best way to get to the target area,” Garcia tells National Review in an interview.
In the March 3 primary, Garcia was far from the best-known candidate. Among a handful of Republicans running, George Papadopoulos of Russiagate fame was a sideshow, but Stephen Knight, the former Republican congressman who represented the district for three terms before Hill ejected him from his seat in 2018, was a formidable obstacle. Knight had the backing of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and high name recognition in the district. But Garcia edged out Knight by five percentage points to advance to the May 12 runoff, where he became the first Republican to take back a House district that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election.
How did Garcia do it? First, he had a résumé straight out of central casting: He grew up in the district before attending the Naval Academy and then serving his country in war. “I was a first-generation immigrant. My father and my grandfather came here and started from the ground up and created a great small business in the construction business,” he says. “We were taught to work hard, we were taught to earn every dollar that we make, take pride in our country and be a patriot.”
Garcia’s Democratic opponent, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, certainly didn’t help herself with comments mocking Garcia in a way that only drew more attention to his impressive record of service: “Did you guys know he’s a pilot? I . . . you know . . . it had escaped me,” Smith said in an April 25 Zoom call with supporters. “OK, he’s got pictures of planes behind him and I’ve got constitutional-law books.”
Second, the district may not be as Democratic as it seems. Yes, Katie Hill took over the seat in 2018 with a nine-point victory, and Hillary Clinton carried it by seven points in 2016. But even as the district voted against Trump in 2016, Republican congressman Stephen Knight won by six points. One thing that changed between 2016 and 2018 was that Knight voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which capped the deduction for state and local income taxes at $10,000 and effectively hiked the federal tax bills of a number of people who live in high-tax states, including California.
When I asked Garcia if there are any issues where he breaks with his party, repealing the cap is one of the only things he mentions. “Living in California, we have to figure out how to remove the state and local tax deduction cap of $10,000 in the next tax-cut bill,” he says. That issue could have helped him with a crucial constituency that abandoned Knight in 2018.
On other issues, Garcia is a mainstream conservative. He’s pro-life. On immigration, he wants to build the wall and secure the border before talking about granting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “There’s about eight things that need to happen before we have any amnesty or DACA discussions,” he says. “I am a true conservative, and I believe in business, growth, free-market capitalism, the Constitution.” During the campaign, Garcia hit Smith for voting to raise taxes and “killing the gig economy” by voting for a bill that reclassified independent contractors as full-time employees.
Third, the scandal that precipitated the election in the first place could have helped Republicans. There are a handful of examples of special elections over the last decade that were held because the incumbent resigned due to a sex scandal and the incumbent’s party lost the seat. It probably didn’t help Smith that Katie Hill cut an ad for her.
Whether Garcia will be able to hang onto the seat in November, when he will face Smith in a rematch, remains to be seen. How many voters simply punished Knight in 2018 for his vote for the Republican tax bill? In a higher-turnout election, how many anti-Trump voters will be willing to split their tickets in 2020 the way they did in 2016? These unknowns are one reason the race starts out as a “toss-up,” according to the Cook Political Report, even though Garcia won big last Tuesday. With 82 percent of precincts reporting — California is notoriously slow to report its all-mail-ballot elections — Garcia’s margin of victory stands at 10 points.
And the biggest and perhaps most important unknown of all is how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the country over the next six months. Asked if he thinks California Democrats are too slow to lift restrictions on economic and social activity, Garcia offers a general critique. “These are politicians who have never really had to be accountable for having a small business or running a large business for that matter. They don’t really understand the economic implications of what they’re doing,” he says. “There will be life-and-death consequences to all of these decisions. But we absolutely have to figure out how to get back to work and do it in a responsible way that mitigate the risks of spreading the virus. But we also have to do it as quickly as we can.”
While there is plenty of uncertainty, Garcia will still have a lot working in his favor in November against the same weak candidate. And following his success this month, national Republicans will be more eager to help Garcia this fall. “What we’re doing is demonstrating that the . . . party is not going to write off California now,” he says. The additional support will surely help, but it also underscores another challenge: For Garcia to win again in November, he’ll have to do it without the element of surprise.