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

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tomorrow, a special election offers an early look at voting during the pandemic. Voters in the 25th District in suburban Los Angeles, Calif., are to fill a vacant seat once held by a Democrat, a seat Republicans hope to pick up. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: As stay-at-home orders and social distancing carry on through 2020, more and more campaigns could be like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Each of our candidates today are located at their own separate locations, as is our moderator.

DAVIS: Instead of meeting live in person on stage together, Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith debated over video conference call in the race for California's 25th District.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please bear with us if we have an - experience any technical issues.

DAVIS: It's the House seat vacated by Democrat Katie Hill, who resigned amid personal scandal. The two candidates have had to figure out how to campaign with their district on lockdown. Smith told NPR campaign volunteers have taken on additional responsibilities because of the pandemic.

CHRISTY SMITH: And so we've made sure that all of our callers, as they're reaching out, are, you know, equipped with information like how to connect to state resources and the Domestic Violence Hotline and mental health help services and hotlines or, you know, being able to connect people with their nearest food pantry.

DAVIS: Mary Ann Salazar (ph), a volunteer for the Garcia campaign, completely changed how she's reaching voters.

MARY ANN SALAZAR: We transitioned from being able to canvass and stand on street corners waving signs and have that - you know, Mike was going out. And we would go to events that he was hosting, like meet-and-greets and that sort of thing - to all phones.

DAVIS: All phone contacts with voters in a primarily mail-in ballot election that was ordered because of the pandemic. While many Republicans, including President Trump, have criticized mail-in ballot elections as somehow unfair to the GOP, nonpartisan elections analyst David Wasserman notes early data suggest a strong performance by Garcia in this Democratic-leaning seat.

DAVID WASSERMAN: Republicans are more accustomed to using vote by mail, at least proportionately in California. And so far, what we've seen is that Republicans are leading Democrats by about 12 points on their return rate.

DAVIS: It could help temper Republicans' opposition to mail-in balloting as more states consider the option for November. The national campaign committees are using this race to test out different messages, sending different mailers and texts to different voters to see what gets the highest rate of response, according to Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who runs the House Democrats' campaign operation.

CHERI BUSTOS: We will see what works. And we will come out of that special election with ideas that we hope will work going into November of 2020.

DAVIS: Socially distanced campaigning has not stopped candidates from going off message. Smith committed what is possibly the first Zoom gaffe of 2020 when she appeared to make light of Garcia's past military service as a Navy fighter pilot in an open call with liberal supporters that was captured by Republican trackers.

SMITH: I texted my team. And I'm like, OK. He's got pictures of planes behind him. I've got constitutional law books (laughter).

DAVIS: Smith apologized. But it opened herself up to one thing that won't change in 2020, television attack ads. Garcia quickly responded with this one.

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MIKE GARCIA: I was honored to serve. I was willing to lay down my life for my country.

DAVIS: The race is also a test of what kind of candidate appeals most to voters during this pandemic. Garcia is the political outsider who wants to change the way Washington works.

GARCIA: I'm running because I don't want my nation to become what this state has become, which is a victim of poor policy and poor execution.

DAVIS: Smith is the experienced hand in government.

SMITH: I have 10 years of elected public experience with balanced budgets, with effective policies.

DAVIS: The race is a toss-up. And if it's close, the winner might not be known on election night because mail-in ballots can take longer to count, another preview of what to prepare for this November.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BREATHING EFFECT SONG, "VISIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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