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Democratic Newcomer Tries To Turn Longtime GOP Stronghold Blue

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

In this May 28, 2014, file photo, California state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Mary Plummer | KPCC

In the final days before election day, the congressional race to represent northern Los Angeles County and parts of Ventura County has turned into one of the most competitive in California. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Knight has been deemed California's most vulnerable congressional incumbent in 2016, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report

This 25th Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold. But in recent years, the demographics of the population have been shifting and growing more diverse. Democrats in the district now outnumber Republicans, although barely.

The changes underway in the district have led to a competitive race for the congressional seat. Knight is facing a serious, well-financed challenge from first-time office seeker Bryan Caforio, a Democrat. 

Voters in the district have been inundated by campaign ads and materials from both sides.

Sandra Cattell, the political chair of the Sierra Club's local chapter, describes herself as a Democrat who works with Republicans in what was once solid GOP country.

Cattell said the congressional race has turned negative. Couple it with the presidential campaign and she said even her Republican friends are fed up with this election. 

"There’s so many mailers, there’s so much online, there’s so much on TV. And a lot of it is so negative. It’s just been overwhelming for people," she said.

Caforio's challenge to Knight has made headlines across the country, and the race has drawn a flood of fundraising dollars from national Democrats and Republicans.

According to Oct. 19 campaign finance reports compiled by OpenSecrets.org, Knight has spent $1.4 million to Caforio's $1.2 million. But outside groups have also spent heavily in the race, with $2.7 million spent in opposition to Knight and $1.7 million against Caforio in 2016.

As the Democrats seek to gain ground in the U.S. House, the race is a high stakes political contest. President Obama recently endorsed Caforio and taped a TV ad for him and House Speaker Paul Ryan flew in for a local fundraiser for Knight. 

Knight, a freshman congressman, has decided not to do media interviews in the final days before the election. Communicating through his campaign’s political director, he declined an interview with KPCC for this story.

But during a recent debate with Caforio hosted by a local podcast called The Talk of Santa Clarita, Knight talked about his stands on issues like gun control. He said he would not support a ban on assault rifles like the AR-15.

"We will not go out and target a single weapon. I think that people understand that," he said, adding that it would lead to targeting every handgun.

His opponent supports a ban on assault rifles. "I hear what Congressman Knight says. I disagree with him. I think we need to take steps to protect people in our community," Caforio said.

At a recent visit to Caforio’s campaign headquarters in Santa Clarita, the tension between the two campaigns was evident in the instructions given to canvassers by Caforio staffer Elon Glickman before the supporters head out to knock on doors.

"If somebody from the Steve Knight campaign approaches you while you are canvassing, right, no," he said. "Don’t say anything about our operations, what we’re doing, don’t give them any literature and then give me a call immediately — OK? Immediately."

Caforio has criticized Knight for his anti-abortion views and for not taking a stronger stand against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Knight distanced himself from Trump after the GOP candidate bragged of groping women. Trump later denied he ever acted that way. But Knight also said that while he isn’t endorsing either candidate for president, he does plan to vote. He has declined to disclose who he is voting for.

For his part, Knight has attacked Caforio as an outsider who only recently moved into the district. 

Knight, who was born in the Antelope Valley, has called Caforio a "Beverly Hills trial attorney" in campaign materials. He’s also said Caforio has launched the most venomous campaign that the district has ever seen. 

Caforio moved to the district in November 2015.

"We moved here last year you know because this is where we’re going to live after the election regardless of what happens, but we are running, of course, because this is the area I want to represent," he said.

Much of this race could hinge on Republican turnout and Trump's impact on down ballot races like Knight's.

Trump is polling lower among Republicans in California compared to his national numbers, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  

"The fewer Republicans that turn out to vote because they’re spooked away by Donald Trump, that’s fewer Republicans who can come out and vote for Congressman Knight," Whalen said.

A Caforio win would be the first time the congressional district will have turned blue since the early 1990s.