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Republican Mike Garcia wins California special election and flips House seat

Republican veteran Mike Garcia held onto his lead in California's special election for the 25th Congressional District, and will become the first Republican to flip a seat held by a Democrat in the state since 1998, winning former Representative Katie Hill's seat. Garcia stopped short of a full-fledged victory speech on a call with supporters late Tuesday night, as results showed him ahead of Democratic State Assemblywoman Christy Smith by double-digits. 

But by Wednesday morning, Garcia was declaring victory. 

"After seeing more results last night, it is clear that our message of lower taxes and ensuring we don't take liberal Sacramento dysfunction to Washington prevailed," he said in a statement. "For too long, the people of our district have not had representation, and it's time their voice is heard in Washington."

On Wednesday afternoon, Smith officially conceded, and in a Facebook statement said while "it is critical" all the remaining votes should be counted, "the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor."

Garcia's victory was a welcome sign for House Republicans, coming in a district Hillary Clinton had won by 7 points in 2016, and in a race for a seat that had been held by a Democrat. Hill, who flipped the seat by 8 points from Republican to Democratic in the 2018 midterm elections, resigned in December 2019 after admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer

A Navy fighter pilot who is the son of a Mexican immigrant, Garcia was viewed as an appealing candidate, a good "outsider" fit for Republicans in the district. As the pandemic swept across the country after he advanced through the March primaries, which Smith led, Garcia's campaign quickly adapted to the times, holding tele-thon town halls. 

In the final weeks of the campaign, national Democratic figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Senator Kamala Harris were lavishing their support for Smith through endorsements and social media pushes. While Smith has said she supports the Democratic presidential nominee, neither she nor Vice President Joe Biden officially endorsed each other. 

President Trump and national Republicans advocated for Garcia, particularly in the last weekend before Election Day, and they complained about the opening of a new in-person voting center in Lancaster, which they claimed could give Democrats an unfair edge.

"Dems are trying to steal the Mike Garcia Congressional Race in California. Republicans, get out and VOTE for your terrific candidate, ASAP!" Trump Tweeted on Monday. 

Paul Mitchell, vice president of the non-partisan Political Data Inc., said the new voting center was not likely to make any notable impact. "This is a tempest in a teapot in the middle of a desert during a pandemic," he told CBS News before Election Day.

The Trump Victory campaign also played an important role, holding nearly 80 training events for volunteers in support of Garcia. The Republican National Committee and California Republican Party spent nearly $1 million on the special election and combined to contact over 1.4 million voters while sending over 300,000 text messages to voters in the district leading up to Election Day.

The financial support for Garcia, who consistently tied with or slightly lagged behind Smith's fundraising, proved useful in the end. The House Republican campaign arm spent $1 million on an ad buy in April, the Congressional Leadership Fund spent $600,000 on ads and anti-Smith mailers, and the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of California spent nearly $1 million to support Garcia through field staff and targeted mailers.

While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also spent $1 million in an ad buy for Smith, the Democrat-backed House Majority PAC (HMP) didn't spend anything past the primaries. 

Democrats expect the registration advantage and turnout from the presidential race to help them take the seat back in November, when Garcia and Smith will face each other again in a rematch. One indicator of this came on Monday, when HMP announced that they have reserved $3.25 million in ads for the Los Angeles market in the fall.

Smith's concession statement looked ahead to the next race and a "vigorous debate" on issues in the coming months, including health care access and job creation, among others.

Republicans also held their seat in Wisconsin's 7th District special election, formerly held by Congressman Sean Duffy, where GOP state senator Tom Tiffany beat Democrat Tricia Zunker by 14 points. 

Tiffany was another Republican special election candidate backed by Trump, and said he had a quick phone call with the president after his victory. In a call with CBS News, he emphasized he wants to help Congress with reopening the country. 

"We know who is most affected by this: it's the elderly, it's people with underlying conditions, health conditions, and we need to make sure that we protect those people. We need to make sure that our frontline health care providers are protected," Tiffany said. "But otherwise, for a lot of people, they can go back to doing many of the things that they used to. And the sooner we get there, the better."

The election in the rural district was expected to favor the Republican, but was also a chance for local election clerks to bounce back after April's chaotic presidential primaries.

"It's one of the most unusual campaigns I've been through," Tiffany said in his election night remarks. 

Musadiq Bidar contributed reporting.

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