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GOP poised to retake Katie Hill’s California seat, as Trump-backed candidate wins big in Wisconsin

Candidates backed by President Trump were outperforming expectations in two closely watched congressional special elections on Tuesday night, as former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia inched closer to retaking Democrat Katie Hill’s California seat and Republican Tom Tiffany easily prevailed in Wisconsin.

Garcia grabbed a substantial early lead Tuesday in the fight for the open U.S. House seat north of Los Angeles in the swing 25th District, giving California Republicans a chance to claim a Democratic-held congressional seat in the state for the first time since 1998. With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Garcia was leading Democrat Christy Smith 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent.

Trump lost the district by 6 percentage points in 2016. He went out of his way to promote Garcia in recent weeks as strong on guns and immigration, and some Democrats had hoped he would be a liability in the race. Former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democrats all lined up behind Smith.

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Garcia told supporters he wouldn’t declare victory Tuesday night, but added, “It is looking extremely good.”

Smith, however, insisted that the contest was “clearly too early to call” and said her campaign would work to make sure “every vote is counted in the days ahead.”

Navy veteran Mike Garcia, a Republican candidate in Tuesday's special election in California's 25th Congressional District, is seen in an undated photo. (Associated Press)

Navy veteran Mike Garcia, a Republican candidate in Tuesday’s special election in California’s 25th Congressional District, is seen in an undated photo. (Associated Press)

Smith and Garcia topped a crowded field of candidates in the state’s March 3 primary and advanced to separate elections: One, on Tuesday, to fill the remainder of Hill’s two-year term, and a second in November for the full, two-year term starting in 2021.

For the GOP,  Smith’s statement that more votes need to be counted conjured up memories of the 2018 elections, when Republicans saw their early leads in California races shrink to nothing after Election Day, as more and more ballots trickled in. Some Republicans cried foul and blamed the state’s practice of legalized “ballot harvesting,” which permits political operatives to pick up voters’ ballots en masse and drop them off at polling stations.

Trump and the National Republican Congressional Committee have claimed Democrats were trying to steal the election in the 25th District with a last-minute move to open up an additional polling station in the district.

The contest is the only competitive House race in the country in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. It’s seen nationally as a proxy vote on Trump’s leadership and a possible harbinger for November elections.

“Supporters of Mike Garcia are already calling tonight a ‘landslide’ and saying that he represents the ‘first domino’ in a line of Republican wins this year,” reported The New York Times’ Jennifer Medina.

“Supporters of Mike Garcia are already calling tonight a ‘landslide’ and saying that he represents the ‘first domino’ in a line of Republican wins this year.”

— Jennifer Medina, New York Times

Less than a year into her term, Hill resigned after a House ethics probe began looking into accusations of an improper relationship between the congresswoman and a staff member. Lurid, intimate photos surfaced.

Meanwhile, Trump himself put up historic numbers in the Nebraska presidential primary. With less than half the vote in, Trump has already doubled his 2016 total in the state — leading GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to tout what she called surging “enthusiasm” for the president’s reelection.

In Wisconsin, Republican Tom Tiffany, a state senator endorsed by Trump, easily won a special congressional election Tuesday in the state’s heavily conservative, rural 7th Congressional District.

Tiffany’s win over Democrat Tricia Zunker in northern Wisconsin’s 7th District comes in the state’s second election amid the coronavirus pandemic the past five weeks. Tiffany will replace former reality TV star Sean Duffy, a Republican who retired in September. The district, which covers all or parts of 26 counties, has been vacant since Duffy’s retirement.

Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point, but carried the district by 20 points, in 2016. Trump backed Tiffany in the race, but due to the pandemic was unable to campaign in person for him.

Zunker, president of the Wausau School Board, was trying to become the first Native American from Wisconsin elected to Congress. She would have also been the first woman to represent the district, which stretches from Wausau in the south up to Lake Superior and includes popular tourist destinations like Bayfield and Madeline Island.

​​​​​​​Wisconsin state Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, speaks at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., May 29, 2015. Tiffany, a candidate endorsed by President Trump, won Tuesday's special House election. (Associated Press).

​​​​​​​Wisconsin state Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, speaks at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., May 29, 2015. Tiffany, a candidate endorsed by President Trump, won Tuesday’s special House election. (Associated Press).

Zunker pulled in big-name endorsements, including from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., but the numbers were against her. The district has been under Republican control since 2011 and was redistricted to more heavily favor the GOP.

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There was uncertainty over whether holding a special election in the middle of the pandemic would affect the outcome. Election clerks said they were prepared, about 20 percent of registered voters had voted absentee, and there were no calls to delay or alter the election like there were before Wisconsin’s presidential primary last month.

With Tiffany’s win, Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in Congress. Tiffany will serve through the end of the year, but will have to run again in November to serve a full two-year term.

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