On the afternoon before Super Tuesday, I met Christy Smith at her campaign headquarters, a nondescript retail space sandwiched between a gun shop and a nail salon in a strip mall in suburban Los Angeles County.
A first-time candidate for Congress, the state assemblywoman was feeling impatient about the next day’s election. Describing herself as a control freak, it was hard on her to sit back and just wait.
“We’ve done all the communication with voters that we can,” Smith told Ms. “We’ve got our folks out in the field making sure that we’re getting people to polling places.”
She felt good and confident, though, about the campaign she had run: “We’ve left it all on the field at this point.”
Smith’s Race Considered a Bellwether for Congressional Races
This November, all 435 seats in the U.S. House are up for election, but Smith’s race for California’s 25th district, is unique.
In the 2018 wave election, Katie Hill defeated a Republican incumbent with the help of thousands of volunteers—mostly women.
Prior to 2018, the district’s House seat had been held by a Republican for 26 years. When Hill resigned in November 2019 in the wake of a scandal and a cyberattack, the unexpectedly open seat drew a rush of candidates, including some unusual characters, such as George Papadopoulos, the Trump advisor who served prison time for lying to the FBI, and Cenk Uygur, host of the popular online show the Young Turks. The incumbent Hill had defeated—Steve Knight—also jumped into the race.
Smith was one of the first to declare her candidacy. As a state lawmaker for a large part of the district, a former elected school board member and pillar of Democratic party activism in the area, Smith quickly picked up endorsements from a host of groups such as EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, local Indivisible and other activist groups and Democratic elected officials.
Smith was the only woman in the crowded 12-person field.
“It’s Just the Good Ole Boys Being the Good Ole Boys”
The 2020 House election wasn’t Smith’s first campaign. In 2016, she had run for and lost the state assembly seat she later won in 2018’s wave election. For the decade prior, she had served on the school board. In her short time in the California Assembly, she had racked up an impressive list of successful bills.
I asked her what advice she would give to young women thinking about running for office. Get a mentor and don’t be afraid to lose, she said, and know that unfortunately, in some quarters, “there is still resistance to female candidates.”
“One of my Democratic opponents in particular has been the most out-of-control misogynist of the whole bunch,” Smith said—naming Uygur. “It’s very difficult to afford men like that any accommodation—to say that they are our allies, when decidedly they are not.”
Pulling around 5 percent of the vote, Uygur was more an annoyance than a threat. But, she elaborated, in the 2016 race she lost, her Republican opponent had been “doggedly persistent” in peddling sexist innuendo.
“We would be in public spaces, particularly when we were in a business environment like a Chamber of Commerce forum, and he would repeatedly use the word ‘naive’ when referencing my background and my experience. Sort of like, ‘the little lady doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into,'” Smith said.
Smith believed the charge resonated with men. On the other hand, she recounted, women would come up to her and say, “It’s just the good ole boys being the good ole boys. We’re with you.”
Some of those women were Republicans. They had helped elect Smith and Hill in 2018, and Smith’s 2020 was targeting them in her campaign communications. The 25th is, after all, a suburban swing district.
“Seeing what I had been through with a couple of cycles out in public and in the business community, it just didn’t sit well with them to see an accomplished woman being treated that way,” Smith said.
For some, the support was offered under the radar—“some just by a whisper campaign. Some who were willing to share with their friends that I was the candidate for them. And some who said, ‘Don’t tell anybody but I’ll make some phone calls for you, or I’ll write you a check under a threshold where it doesn’t get reported.’”
Smith’s Defense of Reproductive Freedom and Justice Galvanizes Voters
Reaction against Trump-era misogyny wasn’t the only factor leading Republican women into Smith’s camp. In California’s 25th district, reproductive rights and justice were on the ballot.
On Sunday evening before Super Tuesday, three days before the Supreme Court was to hear June Medical Services v. Russo, roughly 200 Smith volunteers gathered for a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by Senator Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, NARAL president Ilyse Hogue and other state and national elected officials.
Harris reprised her campaign slogan to raucous cheers, “Justice is on the ballot. Reproductive justice is on the ballot. Christy Smith is on the ballot!”
Defending reproductive health care and freedom is a priority for Smith, and her two leading opponents had been endorsed by anti-choice groups.
“When we see what this administration has done to try to chip away at Roe v. Wade, we must draw the line,” she said.
After Sunday’s rally, I spoke with Hogue.
“We think of California as our North Star,” she said.” If California isn’t pulling in the direction of reproductive freedom and justice, then the whole country is at risk of sliding even farther to the right.”
Smith’s focus on women’s empowerment and reproductive freedom was inspiring core Democratic voters, as well as securing support from pro-choice Republican women.
Vanessa Carr, a Democratic Party activist and self-described progressive in her twenties, said, “It’s great to see a woman leading the progressive movement here, in an area that’s not so progressive. It’s really admirable. We need more women representatives in Los Angeles.”
Nassim Moallem, a NARAL member and law student, told Ms., “I’ve been looking to help out with swing districts in this election. I want to make sure we continue to have representatives who are advocating for women and reproductive justice.”
Women Volunteers Boost Smith to a Super Tuesday Win
On Super Tuesday, Smith earned a first-place finish. But to win and hold a House seat, she’ll have to prevail in not just one, but two elections, over the next eight months.
There is a special election on May 12 to fill the remainder of Hill’s term, in addition to the November 3 general election for the next full congressional term. Smith will face Republican Mike Garcia in both races.
National Democrats are looking at the May special election as a bellwether for 2020. Do Democrats have what it takes to hold the House majority? With Trump on the ballot, can the women of the 2018 wave survive their first test as swing district incumbents in what will be the most polarized election in a generation?
Whether the women-led grassroots movements that put Hill in office and secured Smith her win last week show up in the coming months could make all the difference. So far, the signs are positive. In the 10 weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, over 2,000 individuals volunteered for phone-banking and door-knocking, according to Andrea Rosenthal, a field director for the California Democratic Party. She confirmed that the vast majority of volunteers were women.
Their work knocking on doors and calling voters has been in some ways a leap of faith in these troubled times.
As Senator Kamala Harris observed at Smith’s rally, “I believe there is a conscious attempt to disillusion the American people, to beat us down to the point where we think as individuals we don’t matter. We are here to say we will not be canceled by these folks who are trying to game the system. We will participate. We believe in our democracy, flawed though it may be, imperfect though it may be.”
At least in this corner of suburban Los Angeles, women are saying: We will persist. They seem to be channeling Smith’s election eve promise to her dedicated volunteers:
“We are not going back to a time when we have representatives who literally close the door in our face.”