SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) -- If there is going to be a comeback for California's traumatized Republican Party — a so-called "red recovery" that could threaten Democratic control of the U.S. House — Mike Garcia wants to be part of it.
The former Navy combat pilot turned Republican congressional candidate is cut from conservative cloth. He supports a strong military, lower taxes and backs President Donald Trump. And even in the Democratic bastion of California, he thinks there are enough voters like him in the swing 25th District north of Los Angeles to win back the seat the party lost in 2018.
"I don't want my country to turn into what my state has become," the candidate told supporters gathered last week in the back room of a tavern festooned with U.S. flags and campaign posters.
If that happens, "that's when things will go to hell in a handbasket," he said.
His denunciation of his home state, notorious for high taxes, homelessness and clogged freeways, earned him a round of applause. But to claim the seat vacated by Rep. Katie Hill — a rising Democratic star who resigned last year amid a House ethics probe into an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of her congressional staffers — he's going to have to emerge from a rowdy March 3 primary contest with more than a dozen candidates on the ballot.
The election in what once was a Republican redoubt is being watched nationally for what it could say about the fight for control of Congress.
Early primary voting starts Monday and in an unusual twist, there are two races for Hill's former seat that could cause voter confusion.
One is a special election to choose someone to complete the second year of Hill's term, and the other is a race to choose two candidates for the November general election that will determine who takes office in 2021.
Among the candidates in both races: Steve Knight, who lost the seat to Hill; online news personality and progressive Cenk Uygur, former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who served a two-week prison sentence for lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian intermediaries during the 2016 campaign; and Christy Smith, a Democratic state legislator with the solid backing of the party establishment.
The contest has evolved into campaigns within a campaign.
Knight questions Garcia's loyalty to Trump, while Garcia blames Knight for losing the seat. "There wasn't enough effort, there wasn't enough charisma" in 2018, Garcia says.
On the Democratic side, Uygur has been attacking Smith for a history of taking corporate donations, as well as the campaign arm of House Democrats for backing her, similar to Sen. Bernie Sanders' longstanding conflict with party establishment. Smith has said she is not accepting corporate PAC or lobbyist donations in the race.
Not long ago the district was reliable conservative terrain, running through suburbs and horse ranchettes in northern Los Angeles County, into a slice of Ventura County that includes the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
But like much of California, it has grown gradually more Democratic. Hillary Clinton carried the district by nearly 7 points in the 2016 presidential election and two years later Hill claimed what was the last Republican-held House seat anchored in Los Angeles County with a 9-point win.
If no candidate wins more than 50% of the special election vote — the threshold to claim the seat — then the top-two vote-getters would be matched up in May in yet another election. And voters might blink when they realize the special election ballot has a handful of names that don't appear on the other one.
Knight said he's been explaining the unusual two-for-one election repeatedly on campaign stops, hoping voters don't get frustrated or lose track of his name on the ballots.
"You are voting twice," Knight said. "It is confusing."
Republicans face a challenge gaining ground in a state where the president is widely unpopular outside his loyal GOP base, and where the party's registration numbers have been shriveling for years.
Democrats, who hold every statewide office and control both chambers of the Legislature, outnumber Republicans by more than 4 million voters statewide. The GOP has spiraled downward to third-party status, even outnumbered by independents who tend to vote like Democrats.
Of the state's 53 congressional seats, only six are held by the GOP.
But Republicans are eager to retake a string of seats they believe were lost by bad luck and inadequate planning in 2018, including in the former GOP stronghold of Orange County and the Central Valley farm belt.
The 25th District, where Democrats hold a 6-point registration edge, is among them.
At the tavern, Garcia told his supporters his path to victory includes energizing new voters such as evangelicals who have been sitting out elections, along with driving a strong turnout in Republican-rich Simi Valley. He also plans to deploy widespread "ballot harvesting" that was used by Democrats with great effect in 2018, in which ballots can be picked up from voters by campaigns and dropped off at election sites, much like a piece of mail.
Not surprisingly, Trump is figuring prominently in the race.
Smith, the leading Democrat, has been tweeting about his impeachment and Senate trial. Knight posted an online ad critical of Garcia, pointing out that he didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election, when Trump was elected.
Uygur has been cheerleading for Sanders' campaign, arguing he's the best pick to oust Trump. Papadopoulos headlines his work for Trump on his campaign homepage, while Garcia says he wants to win the seat to enable Trump's agenda.
The conflict between Smith and Uygur mirrors the larger split among progressives and establishment candidates in the Democratic presidential contest, which is also playing out in other House races around the state and country.
Uygur's Twitter barrages say the House's Democratic campaign arm is pumping "tons of corporate cash" into Smith's campaign to "wage war on ... progressive ideals." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backs Smith, responded in a statement that "We know what is at stake in this special election and we are proud to support a candidate with deep local roots in the district and the ability to hold this seat."
In a statement, Garcia said he voted for Trump in the 2016 primary but was held up on an out-of-state business trip and was unable to vote in the general election. He said Knight is trying to mislead voters.
Outside the tavern, Simi Valley resident Mike Wise said he was supporting Garcia, citing his credentials as a veteran. His stands on the issues "are pretty much in line" with his own, the Republican marketer said.
At the nearby Simi Valley library, Debbie Sheehan, a retired middle school teacher, said she was undecided but wanted to see a woman elected who would support education, which she said is underfunded and woefully lagging China and other nations.
The Democrat is no fan of Trump but said the president was unlikely to figure in her House vote.
"I'd vote for a woman before I'd vote for a man," Sheehan said. In Congress, "there needs to be more women."