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What We Know About That California Special Election And What It Could Mean For 2020

The California presidential primary on March 3 won’t be the only hotly contested race on the Golden State ballot: There will also be a special election in California’s 25th District.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Katie Hill resigned her seat in early November amid allegations of improper relations with her staff. Democrats now face a precursor to 2020 as the party gauges its strength in one of its new suburban pickups. Hill won the Los Angeles metropolitan-area seat by about 9 points in 2018’s blue wave, but FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric1 indicates that the seat doesn’t lean toward either party, which means Democrats don’t have a built-in advantage. And with former Republican Rep. Steve Knight back on the ballot, it’s likely to once again be a competitive contest.

Suburban areas like those in California’s 25th District played a pivotal role in Democrats’ takeover of the House in 2018 and will be crucial in 2020, too. In fact, based on CityLab’s congressional district density categorizations, which range from “Pure Rural” to “Pure Urban,” 70 percent of Democratic House pickups last year came from the two mostly suburban categories, “Sparse Suburban” and “Dense Suburban.” Democrats have continued to make gains in 2019, but what happens in the California 25th — considered “Dense Suburban” — will be important in helping us assess Democrats’ newfound suburban strength.

A blue wave swept through the suburbs in the midterm

Number of House seats gained by Democrats in the 2018 election, by the density of neighborhoods in each district

Before After*
CityLab Category Dem. Seats GOP Seats Dem. Seats GOP Seats Dem. Pickups Share of Dem. Pickups
Sparse Suburban 35 51 51 35 +16 40%
Dense Suburban 56 27 68 15 +12 30
Urban-Suburban Mix 41 7 47 1 +6 15
Rural-Suburban Mix 21 93 25 89 +4 10
Pure Rural 9 61 10 60 +1 3
Pure Urban 33 1 34 0 +1 3
Total 195 240 235 200 +40 100

*The initial result in the North Carolina 9th district was thrown out due to election fraud, meaning there was no midterm result. But a special do-over election to fill the seat was held on Sept. 10, 2019, which Republicans won.

Source: CityLab

With a competitive race for the Democratic presidential nomination at the top of the ballot and California’s primary falling early in the nominating process, it might seem as if Democrats have an unfair advantage, as the presidential contest will likely boost Democratic turnout. But even if Republicans experience lower turnout because President Trump has no serious primary opposition, they probably won’t have to worry too much, because California holds a jungle primary. That means all candidates are on the ballot regardless of party, and a candidate wins only by earning a majority of the vote (50 percent) — an unlikely outcome, as both parties have more than one potential major contender. This means it’s pretty likely this race will go to a general election on May 12.

The Democratic candidates include state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who appears to be the party establishment’s pick with endorsements from Sen. Kamala Harris, multiple members of the U.S. House and even Hill herself. But Cenk Uygur, creator of the online news and commentary program The Young Turks and co-founder of Justice Democrats, a progressive organization seeking to move the Democratic Party to the left, has also announced that he’s running. Uygur’s past sexist comments, which led to his departure from the Justice Democrats in 2017, could prove a problem for him, though, and he doesn’t live in the district, either. However, Uygur could still raise a lot of money from his online following to build a competitive campaign.

And on the Republican side, Knight is seeking a comeback after losing to Hill in 2018. At this point, at least two other candidates are running, including one controversial name: George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Like Uygur on the Democratic side, Papadopoulos could harness national support to raise money, having elevated his profile through media appearances since leaving prison and via his new book, which claims he was taken down as part of an effort by the “deep state” to upend Trump’s presidency. Mike Garcia, a Navy veteran and businessman, was already running to take on Hill before news of her resignation, and he’s raised nearly $500,000 so far.

We don’t yet have any polling here, but this election will be taken as an early sign of the general election environment’s Democratic or Republican lean, and whether Democratic strength in the suburbs is holding up. One special election can’t tell us much by itself, but the California 25th contest will provide another data point to consider as we look ahead to the 2020 election.


  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.