WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans moved closer to recapturing a seat in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday as Mike Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot endorsed by President Donald Trump, led in preliminary results from a special election north of Los Angeles.
With about 140,000 votes counted, Garcia was ahead of Democratic California state legislator Christy Smith by 55.9% to 44.1% in the state’s 25th congressional district, preliminary results from the California Secretary of State’s office said.
If his lead holds up as the results are tallied, Garcia, 44, will fill a seat that became vacant after Democrat Katie Hill resigned last year following a scandal in which intimate photographs of her were published online and she faced accusations of sexual relations with staffers.
But it could take several days for a winner to be declared, because the election was conducted largely by mail-in voting to avoid novel coronavirus exposure at the polls. As long as they are postmarked by election day, California will accept ballots arriving up to three days later.
Dave Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote on Twitter that it would be “very tough” for Smith to close the gap in votes. If Garcia’s lead holds, he will become the only House Republican from a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016 with more than 50% of the vote, Wasserman said.
“It is looking extremely good,” Garcia said on a conference call. “I won’t give a victory speech tonight. We’ll save that for hopefully tomorrow night as the data comes in.”
Smith, in a statement, said the outcome was too early to call.
“With so much at stake in this election for families across this district, from access to quality healthcare, to putting the needs of the middle class at the center of future economic relief packages passed in Congress, it is critical that every ballot cast is counted and the voice of every CA-25 voter is heard,” she said.
The contest was being watched for clues to which party Americans believe can better handle the coronavirus epidemic and how they think Trump is dealing with it. Smith had challenged Trump’s handling of the crisis.
The election was also seen as a test of mail-in voting. Because of the continued threat of the coronavirus, more states are expected to move to vote-by-mail in the general election in November.
Hill was the first Democrat to represent the district in 25 years when she was elected in 2018.
Garcia, a political newcomer, has described her tenure as “an embarrassment.”
A victory by Garcia would not threaten the Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives, but would be a boost for Republicans, who have worried whether the staggering public health and economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak will hurt their standard-bearer Trump’s re-election chances in November.
California, the country’s most-populous state, is a stronghold for Democrats, who hold 45 of its 53 congressional seats.
The 25th district has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Nonetheless, Smith told MSNBC on Sunday that she could lose because many voters were focused on paying rent or filing for unemployment benefits, rather than politics.
Trump on Monday accused Democrats of trying to rig the election after Los Angeles County set up an in-person polling station at the last minute in an area that has a large number of minority voters. County officials said the local mayor had requested the polling station.
Republicans won another special election for a congressional seat in a largely rural district of Wisconsin Tuesday, as Republican state Senator Tom Tiffany defeated law school professor Tricia Zunker by 57.2% to 42.8%.
Trump, who had won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016, greeted Tiffany’s victory on Twitter.
Both the California and Wisconsin winners will have to defend their seats again in November, when Democrats will seek to keep their House majority and gain control of the Senate.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Peter Cooney, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle