LOS ANGELES — Mike Garcia, a former military pilot and newcomer to Republican electoral politics, has defeated his Democratic opponent in a special election to fill a House seat in Southern California.
The victory is the first time the G.O.P. has flipped a Democratic held seat in California since 1998 and is a significant win in an election that was primarily conducted by mail and reflected the country’s bitter partisan mood.
Mr. Garcia and Christy Smith, a Democratic member of the State Assembly, competed to replace former Representative Katie Hill, who resigned last year after admitting to an affair with a campaign staff member. The two candidates will meet again in November, when both are planning to run for a full term.
Though election officials had not yet completed the count, Ms. Smith announced on her Facebook page that she was conceding the race to Mr. Garcia Wednesday afternoon, as he maintained a lead of 12 percentage points. The win clinched a two-for-two showing by the G.O.P. in Tuesday’s special House elections.
In rural northern Wisconsin, Tom Tiffany, a Republican state senator, handily beat Tricia Zunker, a Democratic school board member, in the state’s Seventh Congressional District race.
Even as Ms. Smith congratulated Mr. Garcia, she called the election “only one step in this process.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that together, we will prevail in the fall general election,” she wrote in a statement posted on her campaign’s Facebook page.
Republicans are likely to point to Mr. Garcia’s victory as a sign that President Trump still has support in the kinds of suburban areas that Democrats are depending on to win back the White House. Mr. Trump had repeatedly weighed in on the race, endorsing Mr. Garcia even as he suggested the election was “rigged” by Democrats in the state.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats tried to portray the race as a referendum on Mr. Trump, a strategy they thought would resonate in the district, where Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by nearly seven points.
But Mr. Garcia was seen as a top-notch Republican recruit in the district, where Latinos make up the second-largest group of voters. In recent years, the party has struggled to shore up its support from Latino and Asian voters in such diverse suburban districts of Southern California.
In 2018, liberal activists from Los Angeles enthusiastically flocked to the district to knock on doors and register new voters, which helped to fuel one of the most high-profile victories for Democrats in the midterm elections.
Democrats had privately worried that Ms. Hill’s resignation left the party vulnerable in the district. And Republicans had moved quickly: Mr. Garcia campaigned for more than a year and leaned heavily on his biography.
California is now set to conduct the November election primarily through the mail, and Tuesday’s contest was a practice run, with in-person voting centers mostly setup outdoors in parking lots. The debate over mail-in voting has grown increasingly rancorous and partisan, with Republicans portraying it as ripe for fraud, without evidence.
Mr. Garcia had declared victory Wednesday morning, saying in a statement “I’m ready to go to work right away.”
“It is clear that our message of lower taxes and ensuring we don’t take liberal Sacramento dysfunction to Washington prevailed,” he said. “For too long, the people of our district have not had representation, and it’s time their voice is heard in Washington.”