California Special Election: Democrats Fear Loss Against Trump-Backed Candidate In a rural and suburban district north of Los Angeles that Democrats flipped in 2018, a Republican candidate is gaining ground amid debates about how to respond to the pandemic.

Democrats Fear Losing U.S. House Special Election In Southern California

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's been nearly seven months since California Congresswoman Katie Hill resigned amid a House ethics investigation and intimate photos published online without her consent. On Tuesday, a special election will send a new member to Congress in Hill's place. And as Libby Denkmann with member station KPCC reports, the coronavirus has taken center stage in this competitive race north of Los Angeles.

LIBBY DENKMANN, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate how profoundly things have changed in the 25th Congressional District since the March primary. Instead of doorknocking or in-person debates, campaigns for Republican Navy veteran Mike Garcia and Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith are suddenly playing out on Zoom.

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MIKE GARCIA: We thank you for joining us today for this unique virtual forum format.

DENKMANN: And issues like ending stay-at-home order and allowing businesses to reopen have taken center stage.

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CHRISTY SMITH: The most important thing we can do is to remind people to continue to stay safe at home.

DENKMANN: Smith says the Federal Government's response to COVID-19 has been scattershot. Garcia says he supports the president's plan to restart the economy.

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GARCIA: You know, this is where the health experts really need to be consulted and listened to as well.

DENKMANN: Garcia signs and T-shirts are as common as chaparral in the hillsides around parts of the 25th District, including at a recent open-up protest.

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DENKMANN: Linda Enos had a hard time holding up a big poster board on a hot and blustery high desert afternoon. It read, honk to reopen California.

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LINDA ENOS: People are losing their jobs, their incomes. They're destroying our economy.

DENKMANN: Enos says stay-at-home order may get in the way of typical get out the vote efforts, but she and her fellow protesters have all the motivation they need.

ENOS: This is hindering a lot of it, but I think it's waking up a sleeping giant as well.

DENKMANN: Polling indicates protesters like Enos represent a fringe position. Californians are more concerned about shelter-in-place orders ending prematurely. Hilary Schardein is the chairwoman of a local liberal group called CA25 United for Progress. She says the open-up demonstrations she's observed to look like a way for Republicans to energize their base.

HILARY SCHARDEIN: It was a whole bunch of people wearing Make America Great Again hats. It, from all appearances, was just a political rally.

DENKMANN: On paper, Christy Smith should be the odds-on favorite to keep the seat in Democratic hands. First-time candidate Katie Hill defeated Republican incumbent Steve Knight by nearly double digits 2018's blue wave swept seven California Republicans out of Congress. Schardein says during that race, Democratic activists felt like a scrappy band of underdogs. After Hill's abrupt resignation...

SCHARDEIN: It's tough to get people to keep up their energy and keep up their enthusiasm.

R REX PARRIS: She has not been able to generate the excitement that Katie was able to generate.

DENKMANN: Republican Mayor R. Rex Parris of Lancaster remembers a staff member leaving him in the dust when Hill arrived at events.

PARRIS: Katie's in the room. She disappeared. She went to Katie (laughter). It was that magnetic. It was really quite a phenomenon.

DENKMANN: And that lack of enthusiasm is what has Democrats concerned about losing the seat. But even if they do, Garcia and Smith will face each other again on the November ballot for a full term in Congress. For NPR News, I'm Libby Denkmann in Los Angeles.

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