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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

In deep blue California, Republicans find signs of life

Mike Garcia’s special election victory shows Republicans how to succeed in blue states

After a sound defeat in the 2018 midterms, California Republicans have a reason to be hopeful again. 

Although registered Republicans number behind registered Democrats and voters with no party preference, they gained an additional congressional seat on March 13, 2020, when Mike Garcia was announced the winner in a special election in California’s 25th congressional district (CA-25).

Garcia, a former U.S. Navy pilot and son of Mexican-American immigrants, soundly defeated challenger Christy Smith in a battle to fill the seat of Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill, who resigned last November. It was the first time Republicans were able to flip a Democrat-controlled House seat in California since 1998, and they did so in a dominating fashion in what many anticipated to be a hotly contested race. 

They also won in a region that doesn’t fit the usual demographics of Republican congressional districts. 

CA-25 is a majority-minority district that voted in favor of Clinton by almost seven points in 2016. Located in the suburbs of Los Angeles, CA-25 was formerly a GOP stronghold — congressional Republicans represented the district for 26 years prior to Katie Hill’s victory in 2018. But in recent times, the prospects of a Republican victory here have been flustered by diverse demographics and the retreat of suburban voters away from the GOP. Consequently, there was worry that President Trump inserting himself into the race –– first by endorsing Garcia and then later by exclaiming that the race was rigged against the candidate –– would potentially scare away swing voters

But last month showed it didn’t.

In fact, Garcia not only won overwhelmingly, he actually overperformed in a number of categories. According to data from the LA County Registrar-Recorder office, he won by six points in the heavily Latino city of Lancaster, and was edged out by just two points in nearby Palmdale. And per his own campaign’s data tracking, he won a majority of Hispanic voters.

Some are now concerned that Garcia’s victory reveals what could be a potentially frightening outcome for Democrats this November, with small shifts in minority voters enough to cost the Biden campaign victories in a number of crucial swing states. Already, many political experts around former Vice President Joe Biden warned him that he is not doing enough to court Hispanic voters. Just last month, Latino activists told Politico that they are concerned that the campaign is not doing enough to increase voter turnout in their communities.

Although Trump is still unlikely to win a substantial number of Hispanic voters this fall, increasingly depressed turnout and insufficient catering could damn the Biden campaign. And in a much broader view, Garcia’s victory also reveals that Republicans might not just die the demographic death that so many experts anticipated. 

Garcia’s general consultant put it simply: “You can win a race anywhere if you have the right candidate.”

So, while critics are quick to point that the GOP has become the party of white men –– 41 of 53 sitting Republican senators fit the description –– the reality is that California’s Republican candidates are slowly but surely diversifying. Of The Cook Political Report’s seven most competitive California congressional races in 2020, four of the seven GOP candidates feature immigrants or their recent descendants. Aside from Garcia, state legislators Young Kim (CA-39) and Michelle Park Steele (CA-48) were both born in South Korea, while David Valadao (CA-21) was born in California to immigrant parents from Portugal. 

It’s also worth noting that three of these four candidates are running in congressional districts with majority-minority populations. 

Valadao, for example, is seeking to reclaim his seat in the 21st congressional district, which he previously lost by less than a thousand votes in 2018. Located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, CA-21 is 74% Hispanic. Skeptics will be quick to point out the phenomenon of higher White voter turnout, especially in midterm elections, as an explanation for why Valadao was previously so successful in this district. But voting data proves otherwise. 

Latino turnout in CA-21 actually decreased when Valadao lost in 2018, with 45% of eligible Latino voters arriving at the polls. In comparison, the number was 55% in 2016, when he was reelected, according to analysis by The Sacramento Bee.

Although Valadao and Garcia both face hefty challenges this fall, at the very least, they have a chance to win. And even if they don’t, they will have shown that Republicans can still be competitive in a changing world.

Consequently, it’s possible that Garcia will lose when he reappears on the ballot in November. Democrats are quick to cite higher voter turnout, Trump’s presence on the ballot and the general difficulty of split-ticket voting in an election year as reasons why Republican incumbents like Garcia may not be poised for reelection. But the fact that an electoral victory was possible for Garcia proves that Republicans may be able to challenge the common assumption that they cannot win in minority-majority districts.

For this reason, it is dangerous to assume that changing demographics will permanently alter the American political scene. Shifting perceptions of racial identity, evolving party ideologies and interstate migration will all inevitably change the future electoral college in ways we can’t even imagine.

Truth be told, there are almost no given certainties in predicting the future of American politics, aside from the fact that national realignment is mostly inevitable. 

Don’t believe me? Just look at the 1976 presidential election electoral college map. Just a few years later, such an outcome was considered impossible. In a decade or two, we’ll probably say the same about 2016.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


  1. The National Popular Vote bill is 73% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country. The bill changes state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    It requires enacting states with 270 electoral votes to award their electoral votes to the winner of the most national popular votes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.
    Candidates, as in other elections, would allocate their time, money, polling, organizing, and ad buys roughly in proportion to the population

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting, crude, and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes, that don’t represent any minority party voters within each state.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable winner states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.
    We can limit the outsized power and influence of a few battleground states in order to better serve our nation.


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