CNN  — 

On Tuesday, the special election to fill the seat held by former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned amid scandal in late 2019, will be held in California’s 25th District. And despite President Donald Trump’s middling job approval numbers nationally – and especially in California – it appears as though Republican nominee Mike Garcia is positioned to beat Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith.

What should we make of the possibility of a Republican pickup in such a strongly Democratic state? (It’s been more than 20 years since Republicans picked up a Democratic House seat in California.) Is California’s 25th a canary in the coal mine – suggesting Republicans (and Trump) are in better shape heading into this fall than they appear to be? Or is this special election just, well, special?

I asked those questions – and a few more – to my friend Mark Z. Barabak, a legendary political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. My conversation with Z is below, lightly edited for flow.

Cillizza: Let’s start with the district. Should it be competitive? Why or why not?

Barabak: Under the circumstances, absolutely.

First, a bit of history. The seat had been reliably Republican for decades. Buck McKeon, a former councilman in Santa Clarita, held it for 20+ years. His successor was Steve Knight, a former LA police officer whose father, Pete, was a legendary test pilot and longtime Sacramento lawmaker. (Pete Knight’s supersonic jet hangs in the Smithsonian.)

But the district has changed over time, with an influx of younger, more ethnically diverse residents. There are now substantial black and Latino populations in the high desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, and Democrats actually lead in registration.

Democrat Katie Hill came along in 2018 and, through a combination of personal dynamism and a blue wave, managed to beat Knight rather handily. That was a big breakthrough for the party (and one of seven seats the Democrats picked up in California.)

Cillizza: Is the whole Katie Hill scandal an issue or non-issue here for Democrats?

Barabak: Republican candidate Mike Garcia has made it an issue.

He wrote in a recent piece in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal stating, “The last year and a half has been an embarrassment for our district and it’s time we restore integrity to our representation in our nation’s capitol.”

When Hill surfaced recently in a video urging voters to turn out (it looked like it was filmed by hand on her smart phone) Democrats were not at all pleased. Privately, they told me they wished she would just go away.

Cillizza: Republicans got crushed in 2018 in California. Trump isn’t any more popular today. So why is this a race Republicans think they can win?

Barabak: For starters, this is a special election and Republicans tend to do better because, as my story this weekend noted, more older conservative voters can be trusted to turn out more than younger, more moderate voters.

Also, you have the pandemic and stay-at-home orders circumscribing Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts, which really hurts the Democratic nominee, Christy Smith, for the reasons mentioned above.

Also also, Garcia has the advantage of owning a politically clean slate. Although he’s a fervent support of President Trump, who lost the district to Hillary Clinton, Garcia hasn’t any voting record to attack. Smith, by contrast, has spent a year in Sacramento, which is just long enough to cast votes that can be used against her and have the label “Sacramento politician Christy Smith” hung around her neck.

Cillizza: Has this race been nationalized? Or is it mostly being fought in local issues? If so, which ones?

Barabak: The race has been nationalized to the extent that Smith and Democrats are portraying Garcia as a Trump Mini-Me and attached to him every misguided or misleading statement the President has made about the pandemic.

Garcia has been running more against Sacramento – and the Democratic leadership there – than Washington. “I don’t want my nation to become what this state has become,” Garcia said in the candidates’ one debate. (Via Zoom.) It’s a thread that has run through his candidacy.

Interesting, the pandemic didn’t dominate that hour-long discussion, although it certainly came up. There was talk about local traffic issues and help for small business, among other concerns. Both candidates, notably, struck bipartisan notes, saying they intended to go back to Washington and work as problem-solvers without regard to party, which reflects the leanings of the district and the fact neither party is overwhelmingly dominant.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If this seat goes Republican on Tuesday night, it will say ________ about the national political environment.” Now, explain.

Barabak: “Not a whole lot.”

It will certainly give Republicans and President Trump something to crow about, and why shouldn’t they?

Still, special elections are, well, special, which is to say out of the ordinary.

Should Mike Garcia win, Republicans deserve credit for recruiting a strong candidate and capitalizing on this particular opportunity. But win, lose or draw, I wouldn’t apply any broad lessons. Democrats still remain strong favorites to keep control of the House after November.

And for whatever its worth, Democrats are convinced down to their bones that Mike Garcia is just renting the seat for a few months, until the general election, when they expect a much stronger turnout will boost Christy Smith.

That’s right: The two will do this all over again November 3.