SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Democrats have had so much trouble finding candidates in this sprawling valley district north of Los Angeles that two years ago there was no Democrat on the general-election ballot for a competitive U.S. House seat.
This year they gave up looking and simply imported a ready-made candidate from outside the district; Bryan Caforio launched his candidacy for California’s 25th Congressional District just a couple weeks after he moved here.
“It’s very difficult for us to home-grow Democrats,” said Mark Archuleta, a local activist who is advising Caforio’s campaign. “Every board, every city council, everything’s controlled by Republicans, so you can’t build a bench.”
In more normal political times, the charges of carpetbagging might have ended Caforio’s campaign before it began. But these are the days of Donald Trump, and in a district that is increasingly Hispanic, the presumptive Republican nominee’s heated and hostile rhetoric on race has alienated large swaths of minority voters in the district and left many others with an uneasy feeling about the GOP.
Caforio, 33, a Los Angeles lawyer, has caught the eye of national party leaders trying to steer donations to viable Democratic challengers. His race against first-term Republican Rep. Steve Knight is regarded as part of a second wave of seats that could get Democrats to the 30-seat gain they need in their long-shot bid to reclaim the House majority.
Caforio must first convince the locals that he’s the right fit.
“We are on the right side of issues,” Caforio said in a 90-minute interview inside the Saugus Cafe in downtown Santa Clarita on the same mid-June Sunday of the Orlando nightclub massacre. Trump had just amplified his earlier proposal to ban Muslim travel into the United States, and Caforio made it clear that one of the big issues he would use against Knight would be Trump, who he said seems very out of step with the region’s values.
“A lot of people, whether they knew about the congressional race or not, would independently comment about how extreme Donald Trump is and how we’ve got to prevent Trump from getting into office,” Caforio said.
Trump is obviously an expansive part of the Democratic playbook across the country, and party strategists see the potential for significant gains in the House in California. Caforio is one of three Democratic challengers for Republican-held seats in districts where President Obama has previously won.
Others are keeping a close watch on Rep. Darrell Issa (R), the 16-year veteran who has not faced a tough race before but whose suburban district is being roiled by Trump angst. Democrats have edged up in voter registration there.
And the Republican troubles go beyond Trump. During the June Senate primary to succeed the retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), GOP voters splintered their votes among many candidates in the state’s “jungle primary,” leaving two Democrats to face each other on the November’s general-election ballot.
So there won’t be a Republican in the Senate race to draw conservatives who don’t like Trump to the polls. One result is that GOP leaders are now coaching embattled House incumbents in California to run their campaigns as though they were political orphans, independent of larger national political forces.
Knight, along with Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, from the Central Valley north of here, have all declined to endorse Trump, and each is focusing intensely on local issues, particularly the perennial water disputes that pit the state’s big coastal cities against inland regions.
In all three districts, the total number of GOP votes in the June 7 primary topped 50 percent, with Valadao grabbing more than 58 percent. “If you’re doing that, you’ve got a path forward,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Knight is also trying to hyper-localize the race against Caforio. He is fond of describing himself as “born and raised” in the Antelope Valley, which is in the district’s northern stretch, about 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles. He often talks about the “way of life” here in a manner that suggests he knows how locals think and his opponent does not.
“He’s too liberal,” Knight said of Caforio during a 40-minute interview on Capitol Hill.
Knight said that he believes the district is “center-right,” with “up-to-date” views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Residents here are strong national defense voters. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Knight’s hometown, is where much of the work for the new stealth bomber will take place.
The previous Republican congressman, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, retired in 2014 after 22 years in the House as his term as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee came to an end. A previously safe GOP seat became what should have been a wide-open contest, as Obama won the district narrowly once and lost it narrowly once.
Republicans held an edge of 14,000 voters in party registration numbers during the 2012 campaign, but Democrats now have an edge of 3,000 voters.
Knight took advantage of his familiarity here — he had served six years in the State Assembly and the state Senate, and his father had been a state senator. He and another Republican placed ahead of the Democrats in the 2014 primary, and Knight won the all-Republican general election.
Now, prepping for a more conventional race against Caforio, Knight is trying to navigate the Trump factor. He said that the presumptive nominee’s standing is better than most people realize and that Trump could get more votes than Hillary Clinton in the 25th District. While Knight did not disclose any polling to support the claim, he said, “It’s not a long shot.”
Caforio thinks the demographics work against Trump. Almost 40 percent of the district’s residents are Hispanic, and Caforio believes that Trump’s reaction to the Orlando massacre will hurt him with most of those voters. “It’s just spewing hatred. And you see something like today, where it really brings it home, that rhetoric like that can have consequences,” he said.
Caforio, who grew up almost 70 miles away in Fountain Valley, spends his days explaining to his new neighbors that he and his wife wanted more space with a cheaper mortgage and good schools. He went to UCLA on an academic scholarship, met his wife there, and then went on to Yale for law school.
Maria Gutzeit, vice president of the Newhall County Water District, said that his story will resonate with voters because they made the same move north that the Caforios did.
“As a 28-year resident, I’m ecstatic Bryan moved here,” Gutzeit said.
Democrats took notice when the first-time candidate raised more than $300,000 in his first four months in the race, outpacing Knight’s money haul.
As an outsider, Caforio knows he must focus on local issues, highlighting proposals for a new water recycling plant and pushing for infrastructure funding that would ease congestion for the thousands of commuters, including his wife, who head to Los Angeles every day.
Caforio initially believed that Republicans would nominate someone other than Trump, who he describes as a “carnival barker,” but he says he is happy to have him in the race to illustrate the extreme elements of Republican doctrine. Caforio intends to tie Knight to Trump’s views on immigration and other hot-button issues, based on Knight’s votes against President Obama’s immigration proposals.
“The presidential campaign dominates the news,” Caforio said. Suggesting Knight might “naturally align” with Trump, he said, “Steve Knight is just like him.”