Former Virgin Galactic CEO enters US House race north of LA

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides announced Wednesday he is seeking the seat held by Republican Rep. Mike Garcia in a district north of Los Angeles that is considered one of the most competitive House battlegrounds in the country.

In a narrowly divided House — where Republicans hold a 222-212 edge with one vacancy — the contest could end up being critical in the 2024 fight to control the chamber.

“Congress isn’t doing enough to help people in our part of California and Congressman Garcia has become part of the problem," Whitesides, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “He supports taking away a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and plays politics instead of focusing on the issues that matter and finding solutions to our biggest challenges.”

In a statement, Garcia said, “I applaud anyone’s decision to try to step in the arena and serve the nation.”

“It’s a decision I made when I was 18 and will continue to do so as long as necessary to ensure our nation’s prosperity and security,” Garcia added, referring to his entry into the U.S. Naval Academy.

Democrats hold a 12-point registration edge in the 27th District, a once-conservative stretch of suburbs and high desert communities that then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden carried by double digits in the 2020 election.

Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot who flew over 30 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, defeated Democrat Christy Smith in three consecutive contests in the district — including by just 333 votes in November 2020.

Garcia’s 2022 victory handed Republicans control of the House and gave the GOP a rare reason to celebrate in a state dominated by Democrats. He is the sole GOP House member with a district within heavily Democratic Los Angeles County.

Whitesides served as NASA chief of staff during former President Barack Obama’s administration. He spent a decade leading Virgin Galactic, which aims to send paying passengers on space tourism flights.

California is known nationally as a liberal monolith, but pockets of conservative strength remain, mainly in the Southern California suburbs and rural and farming stretches. Democrats dominate the state's congressional delegation — the largest in the House — 40-12.

In the 2022 contest, Smith argued Garcia was out of step with district voters: He was endorsed by then-President Donald Trump in 2020, then joined House Republicans who rejected electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania and opposed Trump’s impeachment after the Capitol insurrection. She also highlighted Garcia’s opposition to abortion rights.

Garcia emphasized his military service and pointed to his vote supporting $2,000 stimulus checks as one example of his political independence. He’s also stressed local issues, including concern over illegal marijuana cultivation.