Democrats battle to take on vulnerable California Republican Rep. Mike Garcia

From left; Rep. Mike Garcia, former Assembly member Christy Smith and combat veteran John Quaye Quartey
Democrats Christy Smith, a former assemblywoman, and John Quaye Quartey, a combat veteran, right, are vying to take on GOP Rep. Mike Garcia, left.

A swath of northern Los Angeles County represented by one of the most endangered Republicans in Congress is expected to be among the hottest midterm races in the nation. But first, voters must decide which Democrat they want to challenge GOP Rep. Mike Garcia in the fall — a candidate who lost to Garcia twice or a newcomer to the area.

Former Assemblywoman Christy Smith and former Navy intelligence officer John Quaye Quartey are vying for one of the top two spots in Tuesday’s primary election. Under California’s election rules, the top two vote-getters in the primary will move to the November general election regardless of party.

Garcia, as the incumbent and only prominent Republican running, is widely expected to get the most votes in the primary, said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

“The battle is between the other two to see who’s going to take on Garcia in November,” Guerra said, before adding of the general election, “It’s going to see a lot of money.”

Republican and Democratic super PACs have already booked more than $3.7 million in television airtime for the race in the fall.

The GOP is largely expected to retake control of Congress, in part because the party in the White House traditionally loses seats in Congress in the first midterm election in its tenure. President Biden’s low approval ratings as well as economic concerns such as inflation and high gas prices are also expected to take a toll on Democrats' prospects.

But Garcia’s district is one of nine nationwide labeled as Republican toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps races.

The district — a one-time GOP stronghold with many residents in law enforcement and the aerospace industry — had been trending purple in recent years because of increasing diversity and an influx of young Los Angeles families seeking more affordable housing. And after redistricting, the decennial redrawing of congressional maps following the U.S. census, Democrats now have a nearly 12-percentage-point edge in voter registration. The new 27th District includes Lancaster, Palmdale, Santa Clarita and a sliver of Los Angeles, but it lost Simi Valley, a pocket of conservative voters.

In 2018, after more than a quarter-century of Republican representation, the district went to Democrat Katie Hill. She resigned in late 2019 amid allegations of inappropriate relationships with subordinates and after salacious pictures of her were published without her consent.

Garcia, a former Navy pilot, won the seat by 10 points over Smith in a special election in 2020 and then again in the general election later that year, that time getting 333 more votes than Smith.

Democrats from the district and beyond worked hard to get Hill elected, and her resignation led to malaise among some party activists.

Jackie Thomas, a Santa Clarita resident who had volunteered on Hill's behalf, was among about 20 people who showed up on an April morning at a Lancaster park to canvass for Smith.

"Less people from L.A. are coming up, so if we're not going to do it, who else is?" Thomas, vice chair of the Santa Clarita Valley Democrats, said as she walked from house to house in the heat.

Smith, a former school board member who served one term in the state Legislature, has the bulk of institutional support in this year’s contest, including from the California Democratic Party, several statewide elected officials and many members of Congress.

On Tuesday, Smith met virtually with 28 youth volunteers before a phone bank. She shared her frustration over the deadly shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and said universal background checks would be the first piece of gun legislation she would back in Congress.

"With Uvalde, I went straight from sadness and hopelessness to rage and livid anger," she said. "Because what a small minority of people have chosen to do is throw open a gun market wide open that not even lawful, law-abiding gun owners agree with anymore. You know, 90% of gun owners agree with universal background checks and with red-flag laws and with other things that we can do reasonably inexpensively to keep our communities safe."

Smith, the mother of two daughters, has also focused on her support for abortion access by highlighting her medically dangerous pregnancies in a digital ad.

“The only people who had a right to be involved in that decision were me, my doctor and my God,” Smith, who ultimately decided to continue with a second pregnancy after having seizures and going partially blind during her first, said in a Facebook ad. “I will be damned if I nearly died having both of them only to have them see the day they become second-class citizens.”

Quartey, 47, served in the military for two decades and earned a master's degree in business management from Stanford University. The son of a Ghanaian immigrant father and a mother who lived in the Jim Crow South goes by Quaye, his middle name. He has never held elected office, but he has raised slightly more money than Smith and earned some notable endorsements, including Reps. Katie Porter, Eric Swalwell and Barbara Lee, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus.

He said he believes he is the best choice to take on Garcia because of his record. Both men are the son of at least one immigrant, and combat veterans who attended the U.S. Naval Academy.

Garcia "used his biography as a way to win these elections," Quartey said, adding that voters are excited about his candidacy. "I see the joy in their face when I go door to door knocking. They're excited about the opportunity I present to represent them and to actually win and defeat Garcia in November."

He said his military experience working on intelligence operations and serving as a diplomat on five continents is the reason he is deeply concerned about protecting American democracy, particularly after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation's Capitol. Gun control legislation, including mandatory background checks and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, is also priority for Quartey, whose older brother was killed with a gun. Mailers sent to voters also highlight Quartey's support of reproductive and voting rights.

Quartey and his wife bought a home in Valencia in May 2021, leading some to question his understanding of the area’s needs. This is a district that includes communities where local roots can matter, which helped push Hill to success in 2018.

Stephen Daniels, host of "The Talk of Santa Clarita" podcast and publisher of the Proclaimer, a local news website, said both candidates' backgrounds are salient.

“There is a group of people who are like, 'Christy ran twice' and they’re kind of like, ‘She’s done. She can’t win.’ So they’re looking at Quaye because of that. But it’s a very small group,” said Daniels, who has had both candidates on his podcast and supports Smith. Quartey “is very qualified on paper, particularly going against someone like Garcia. But he came out of nowhere. No one had ever heard of him before he moved here.”

Neither candidate has spent a notable sum reaching out to voters, which could aid Smith, who has greater name identification in the district, Daniels and Guerra said.

Ultimately, the race could come down to turnout, which is dismal at this point, according to a ballot tracker by Political Data Intelligence. About 10% of registered voters in the district had voted as of Friday, according to the consulting firm.

In interviews with voters this week, few knew about the congressional election or the candidates.

As Miriam Carlson walked out of the Lancaster Library with her children, she said she was leaning toward casting a ballot for Smith. The homemaker has received more information from Smith, including a phone call, than from Quartey; she agreed with Smith's stances on climate change, gun control and reproductive rights.

"Having two kids and knowing how difficult it is to be pregnant for some people, I cannot imagine having someone being forced to have their life put in danger, especially if it's not even something that they want," Carlson, 34, said. "We can't pretend that we live in the land of the free when women don't have freedoms over their own bodies."

But the registered Democrat said she still plans to review the stack of pamphlets she's received in the mail before making a final decision.

Eric Ohlsen, 39, voted for Smith in the 2020 general election because, he said, he would vote for any Democrat over Garcia. But the Coast Guard veteran and registered Democrat is voting for Quartey in Tuesday’s primary.

“We have to match Mike Garcia’s resume and she just doesn’t cut it,” said the Palmdale resident, adding that the Antelope Valley is home to a large concentration of former members of the military who work in aerospace or related fields. “The key to success is knowing that and speaking to that community, and I believe Quaye has the experience to do that.”

Ohlsen said even though he believes Garcia's staff works hard for veterans, he can't look past Garcia’s record, including his objection to certifying the presidential election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Garcia also opposed impeaching former President Trump for his role in the insurrection, legalizing so-called Dreamers and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. And Ohlsen doesn't think Smith can beat the incumbent.

"She already lost twice," he said. "I don't think we're getting more out of her."

When Thomas visited Democratic households as she canvassed for Smith, few voters recognized the candidate's name.

"Can I count on your vote for Christy Smith?" Thomas asked a man checking the diagnostics of the cherry-red Yamaha motorcycle in his garage.

"Yeah, why not," the man said, before adding, "I'm gonna take time to read it and make sure I make the right choice."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.