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GOP congressman targeted by Democrats — and some of his constituents

When then-freshman GOP Congressman Steve Knight fought off a challenge from Democrat Bryan Caforio in 2016, he did so with relatively little publicity outside his district that covers parts of Northern Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Caforio is challenging Knight again in the 2018 midterm election, alongside seven other Democratic challengers who have filed campaign financial reports, but he said this time things are different.

"People are paying attention much more now," he said.

With President Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress but under threat of losing their majorities, many voters are closely watching California's hotly 2018 contested races. 

About a dozen California congressional districts are key battlegrounds as Democrats try to retake the U.S. House. While much of the attention has focused on several vulnerable Orange County GOP congressional members, Knight is also in Democrats' crosshairs. 

The congressman is one of 10 California GOP incumbents targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that supports candidates who could oust GOP incumbents. The political research site The Cook Report has ranked Knight's race as a "toss-up," meaning either the incumbent or one of his Democratic challengers could win the seat. It's among the top three closest races in the state.

Knight's 25th congressional district has been pulling more Democratic as the demographic makeup of its voters grows more diverse. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the district over Trump by nearly 7 percentage points. 

The conservative congressman, who is anti-abortion and believes marriage is between a man and a woman, also supports veteran programs and policies that benefit small businesses. He has been a staunch Trump backer and his voting record shows a close alignment with the president's views. 

FiveThirtyEight, a website that has tracked congressional votes, found Knight veered from votes supported by Trump just once this year, when the congressman supported sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran. 

Knight has voted regularly to repeal or weaken the Affordable Care Act. More recently, he also voted for the House's version of the tax plan, which reduced caps for deductions covering state and property taxes and capped interest deductions at $500,000 for new mortgages, while not affecting existing mortgages. These are deductions that many Californians use to reduce their tax burdens.

In an interview with KPCC, Knight defended his votes this year, saying he stood behind each one. He called his health care vote earlier this year a tough one, but said he felt the bill that passed the House, while not perfect, was an improvement on the Affordable Care Act.

"We've got to do something.We've got to do a leadership role here. And that's where that plan was moving, it was moving in the right direction," he said.

As for the tax overhaul plan, he said he is looking for changes in the latest House-Senate compromise legislation that will address his concerns about deductions. He'd also like to see an easing of the brackets that would help middle-class families who are making over $100,000 a year. Knight plans to take a position on the measure in the next few days.

A vote on the tax plan is expected in both houses next week.

Regarding Trump, Knight praised the president for rolling back "burdensome" Obama-era regulations, but also sought to distance himself from the president.

"You know, I wish he would stay more focused on the issues that we’re trying to do and not get so involved in all of the kind of outside things that can happen on a day-to-day basis," Knight said. 

Anti-Trump sentiment is fueling much of the activism that is motivating residents in Knight's district; the president's detractors track votes, show up regularly at protests outside district offices and troll their representative on Twitter. 

At a small rally in a quiet suburb of Santa Clarita on a recent Friday, about a dozen residents gathered, hoisting a collection of signs slamming Knight.

"GOP Tax Plan Hurts Vets," read one handwritten in blue and red ink. Another displayed a giant replica of a $1.5 trillion check written out to "The Wealthiest Americans" and signed by "Poor & Middle Class Americans." 

"I'm out here protesting that my congressman is not listening to a thing I say," said Peggy Stabile, a Santa Clarita resident and Democrat who stood among the crowd. 

Residents protest their Congressman in Santa Clarita. For some, protesting has become a regular part of their routine since President Trump took office.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Residents protest their Congressman in Santa Clarita. For some, protesting has become a regular part of their routine since President Trump took office.

The protest is one of several Stabile has attended in recent months. In her view, Knight hasn't made himself sufficiently accessible to his constituents. She recounted a Knight teleconference town hall that she was invited to join — but too late.

"They notified me about it a half hour after it had started. So I didn't consider that considerate on his part or his staff's part," she said. "I don't feel welcome."

Another Santa Clarita resident, Patti Sulpizio, also attended the rally. She wants to see a Democrat replace Knight in next year's election. 

Sulpizio said she knows many middle-class homeowners in the area who depend on the mortgage interest deduction. She's also worried about how the proposed tax plan will impact those with low incomes.

"They call it tax reform. How can you reform taxes on the backs of the poor people in our country?" she said.

But Knight has strong support among Republicans who are reliable voters and a winning record in the district. In 2016, he beat Caforio in the runoff by about 6 percentage points.

Santa Clarita resident and longtime Republican Andre Hollings said he'll be voting for Knight again. Hollings acknowledged local Democrats are energetic and organized, but he said he’s sticking with Knight.

He said Knight is deeply knowledgeable about local issues.  

"Steve Knight step-by-step is on the right side, clearly and easily," Hollings said. "I look at Steve Knight’s record and it matches the needs of the district. It matches where the district needs to go."

David McCuan, Sonoma State University political science professor, believes next year's election will hinge heavily on voter turnout. Los Angeles County saw a surge in voter registrations in 2016, but midterm elections historically record low turnouts. Next year may prove different — or not.

"There's a lot of churning that's going on here," he said. "That translates to registration. That doesn't necessarily translate into turnout. And turnout is what matters. As obviously Secretary Hillary Clinton knows. It's turnout that matters much more than registration efforts."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the House tax plan's impact on state and property tax and mortgage interest deductions. KPCC regrets the error.