Christy Smith, the Democrat in the race, and her Republican opponent, Mike Garcia, have been unable to campaign in person. The contest — conducted largely through social media, television ads and virtual events — has grown increasingly vitriolic, according to our California political reporter Jennifer Medina.
Democrats are increasingly worried that they could lose, allowing Republicans to flip a California House district for the first time in more than two decades.
So why are Republicans hellbent on undermining the legitimacy of an election that they could very well win? Look to their national political strategy.
Let’s rewind for a second: A few weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an order to mail ballots to each of the roughly 425,000 voters in the district. About a dozen in-person polling locations were also set up.
Late last week, Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican who is backing Mr. Garcia, asked county officials to open an additional in-person polling place in Lancaster, a small, working-class, majority-minority city north of Los Angeles.
This combination of events — a new in-person polling place and a universal vote-by-mail option — set off a Republican firestorm.
The National Republican Congressional Committee accused Democrats of conspiring to “steal” the election. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader who is from a neighboring district, said Democrats were trying to “rig the election.” Even Mr. Garcia accused his opponents of “trying to change the rules to steal an election.”
And then, President Trump weighed in, calling the election “rigged.”
What’s particularly strange about these cries is that the neighborhood where the new polling place was opened routinely elects Republicans. In the State Legislature, Lancaster is represented by two Republicans.
Even though Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the 25th District, Republican voters are returning ballots in significantly higher numbers. The latest data shows that 40 percent of ballots sent to registered Republicans have been returned, while 27 percent of Democrats have mailed theirs back. One in five Independents have returned their ballots. (Given that this election is happening in deep blue California, it’s fair to assume that a good share of those voters backed Ms. Smith.)
All of which is to say that Mr. Garcia has a pretty good shot at winning on Tuesday night. The accusations of electoral theft seem an awful lot like political theater, designed to energize Republican voters and make sure they continue to return those mail-in ballots or head to the polls.
Though Democrats are bracing for defeat, it’s possible Ms. Smith could close the gap. The race is expected to be close enough that our reporter Jenny doesn’t think we’ll have a winner declared by the end of the night. Whoever does win will probably face a rematch in November, with the candidates battling for the full congressional term.
Attacking the mechanics of democracy isn’t a new tactic; questioning the validity of an election is a time-honored tradition in American politics often used by Mr. Trump. (Remember his charges of a rigged election in 2016?)
But the coronavirus threat has supercharged these kinds of attacks by infusing fear into the voting process itself. Already, Mr. Trump and his campaign have spent much of this spring pushing a false narrative about vote-by-mail fraud. Part of the national Republican strategy involves raising doubts about the legitimacy of efforts to expand voting access amid this pandemic.
So while we’re unlikely to find out the winner in this special election on Tuesday night, we already know what we’re likely to see this fall.
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