LOS ANGELES — Republican former Navy combat pilot Mike Garcia advanced Thursday in a special election to fill a vacant U.S. House district north of Los Angeles.

He’ll face Democratic state legislator Christy Smith in a May contest to fill the remainder of a two-year term in the swing 25th District.

Smith has 35 percent of the votes to Garcia’s 26 percent. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Knight is third with 18 percent.

The special election was held Tuesday, the same day as a primary election to determine the two candidates who will face off in November for a full two-year term starting in 2021,.

Smith is leading in that race, Garcia is second and Knight third, but the margins are closer. The two two finishers advance regardless of party affiliation.

The election in what once was a Republican stronghold is being watched nationally for what it could say about the fight for control of Congress.

The seat was left vacant after Democratic Rep. Katie Hill resigned last year amid a House ethics probe into whether she had an inappropriate relationship with an aide in her congressional office, which is prohibited under House rules.

Her resignation came after compromising photos of Hill and purported text messages from her to a campaign staffer surfaced online in a right-wing publication and a British tabloid.

Garcia, a former defense industry executive, has been campaigning as an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. Smith has the solid backing of the Democratic establishment.

Garcia emerged from a crowded primary field that included Knight, who lost the seat to Hill in 2018; Cenk Uygur, a progressive online news personality; and 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.

The seat is one of seven House districts that Republicans lost in California in 2018, including in the former GOP stronghold of Orange County and the Central Valley farm belt.

Not long ago, the 25th District was reliably conservative terrain, running through suburbs and small horse ranches 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.

Republicans face a challenge gaining ground in a state where President Donald Trump is widely unpopular outside his loyal GOP base, and where the party's registration numbers have been shriveling for years.

Of California’s 53 congressional seats, only six are held by the GOP, with two vacancies.

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