By: Kimberly Railey
Freshman Rep. Steve Knight is the last Republican in Congress to call Los Angeles County home, but he has a fight on his hands to keep that title.
Two years after Democrats were shut out of the general election in California's 25th District, party strategists now see a strong opening to flip the seat with favorable voter-registration numbers and presidential-level turnout. They are hailing their candidate, attorney Bryan Caforio, as a challenger who will run more competitively--and raise far more money--than past Democrats in the area.
"This is the first time that I believe that seat is in play," said Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "Caforio brings more to this race than any Democratic candidate has in a long time."
Since 2012, the GOP's 17,000-voter-registration advantage has collapsed, and Democrats now hold a 3,000-voter edge in the district based in the northern Los Angeles exurbs.
Democrats believe Donald Trump's candidacy will provide an extra jolt, given the district's sizable Latino population. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján said recently that Knight's seat is "on our battlefield now in a very aggressive way" thanks to Trump. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the district with 50 percent of the vote.
"Everything is moving in the right direction," Caforio said in an interview. "The new district is much more Democratic."
Knight took 49 percent of the June 7 top-two primary vote, followed by Caforio with 29 percent and two others totaling some 22 percent. This is Knight's first congressional matchup with a Democrat. In 2014, an eight-candidate primary blocked Democrats' top contender from advancing to the general election in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Buck McKeon, and Knight defeated fellow Republican Tony Strickland by 6 points.
For his part, Knight has kept his distance from the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, declining to offer Trump any formal support. He is also planning to skip the Republican National Convention.
"I have never endorsed for a presidential candidate, and that's a consistent record I've had in and out of politics," Knight said in an interview. "I'll be running my own race."
Knight's allies argue that he boasts a strong local brand and can outrun the top of the ticket: In 2012, he won his state Senate district by 15 points, while Romney carried it by 2 points, according to data compiled by Daily Kos.
In the state Legislature, as an assemblyman and senator, Knight also represented territory overlapping with the congressional district. His father, the late William J. "Pete" Knight, was well known in the region, having serving as an Air Force test pilot and later in the state Senate and Assembly for 12 years--an asset that Republicans repeatedly emphasized.
"I can't imagine a Democrat winning," McKeon told National Journal. "The district has changed as far as registration, but the people out there that are Democrats are also pretty conservative people."
The GOP is already portraying Caforio, who moved into the district from elsewhere in Los Angeles, as a carpetbagger. That line of attack helped Knight sink Strickland last cycle even as he was outspent 5-to-1.
Knight's fundraising is again on shaky ground, especially in this prohibitively expensive media market and compared with the totals of other vulnerable GOP incumbents. As of May 18, Knight had $437,000 in the bank. Caforio had just $94,000 at that time, but Democrats predict he will be able to refuel his account now that the primary is over and raise more money than past Democrats in the area. Since announcing his campaign in December, Caforio has collected more money every quarter than Knight.
Democrats are also emboldened by the results of the district's general election in 2012, when the well-known McKeon drew 55 percent against an opponent they view as weaker than Caforio, though that was the first election after the lines were redrawn. The party is casting Knight as too extreme for the moderate district, pointing to his recent comment that Social Security was a "bad idea" and his vote in the state Senate against banning Confederate symbols on state property.
Caforio brought on Democratic media firm Kully Hall Struble, which in 2014 helped Rep. Pete Aguilar flip a seat that had become more Democratic-leaning after redistricting. To replicate that effort, Caforio will have to unite his base after a divisive fight against fellow Democrat Lou Vince, who won the California Democratic Party's endorsement, took 15 percent in the primary, and has not yet backed Caforio.
In the long term, Republicans concede Democrats' growing voter-registration advantage will make the district harder to hold. But they dispute the idea that Trump gives Democrats a significant boost this cycle.
"This district is not going to be a safe Republican seat under its current configuration," said California GOP consultant Dave Gilliard. "Democrats would have made a play here regardless of who the presidential candidate is."
Democrats, meanwhile, contend that one of their steepest challenges is convincing their rank and file that the seat is actually within reach.
"If you don't open your eyes and look behind the curtain, it seems like we're Republican and a Democrat can't win," said Maria Gutzeit, a Democratic former candidate in the race who has endorsed Caforio. "I'm hoping that people realize that we can."