Never mind the candidates. In a key midterm contest, it’s all about Trump

Republican Steve Knight, left, and Democrat Katie Hill are competing for his congressional seat in the 25th District.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press, left; Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Katie Hill and Steve Knight are waging one of the most fiercely competitive congressional races in the country, a free-for-all spilling from the pin-neat subdivisions of Simi Valley to the scrubland of the high desert.

Hill, a Democrat, has been featured on HBO and profiled in several national publications. Knight, a two-term GOP incumbent, is the son of a legendary test pilot turned lawmaker whose supersonic jet hangs in the Smithsonian.

Together, they have raised more than $2.5 million, with outside groups kicking an additional $500,000 into their contest — and that’s just for starters.


None of that, however, seems to matter much.

More than any election of the past generation, the midterm vote in November is shaping up as a referendum on a single individual, President Trump, who has shown an unflagging capacity to drive voters to their partisan corners to fight.

Six in 10 voters surveyed in a recent Pew poll said they saw their ballot as a way to turn thumbs-up (26%) or thumbs-down (34%) on the president, the highest percentage since President Reagan was in his first term. Nearly 7 in 10 said control of Congress will be a factor in their vote, significantly more than usual.

Never mind policy or personalities. In dozens of conversations across the length of the 25th Congressional District, among Democrats, Republicans and independents, all that seemed to matter is whether a candidate has a “D” or “R” beside his or her name.

Democrat Peggy Khoury is turned off, she said, by the way Hill seems to flaunt her gun ownership, a signal of moderation in a district with a small but distinct Republican tilt.

Even so, Khoury said she will vote for the political newcomer — grudgingly — “because she’s a Democrat” and Khoury believes a Democratic-run House would be a badly needed check on Trump.

“I think he’s creating differences between races,” said Khoury, 57, who teaches English as a second language at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. “I don’t like the way he’s making people hate each other.”

(Len De Groot / Los Angeles Times)

For her part, Peggy Cochran — a lifelong Republican and Trump loyalist — doesn’t know a whole lot about Knight, apart from her sense that he shows up only around election time, when he wants people to vote for him.

But at least Knight stands by the president, said Cochran, 78, a retired librarian from Saugus. “There’s this negative influence and it’s just hateful,” Cochran said. “It seems they just want to boot him out. There’s no sense of fair play.”

Democrats need 23 seats to seize control of the House, and their success will likely be determined by the results in a smattering of suburban districts nationwide, in Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and here amid the craggy peaks and red-tile rooftops north of Los Angeles.

The 25th District has been reliably Republican for the last quarter of a century, but that’s changing as the region, long a refuge for those fleeing big-city crime and exorbitant home prices, is remade by an influx of younger, more ethnically diverse residents.

Knight, 51, is a former Los Angeles police officer and Palmdale city councilman who followed his father, Pete, into politics. He was reelected in 2016 with an underwhelming 53% support at the same time Hillary Clinton narrowly won the district. That places Knight high atop the list of Democratic targets in November.

Hill, 30, who ran a statewide nonprofit fighting homelessness, was generally seen as the strongest Democrat in the party’s multi-candidate field, given her status as a fresh face and, especially, her roots in the district, where she grew up the daughter of a nurse and a Beverly Hills police officer.

Registration here is split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with roughly 1 in 4 voters professing no party preference, making the contest a window into the issues and animosities at play in competitive races nationwide.

I’m a Republican. Knight’s a Republican. Trump’s a Republican. So I support them.

— Donna Edwards of Simi Valley

Illegal immigration, perhaps more than any topic, shows how attitudes are formed and judgments shaped as voters filter the world through their partisan lens.

To Danielle Abler, watching kids being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border has been “horrible, absolutely horrible.”

A lifelong Republican, she re-registered as a Democrat when Trump won the GOP nomination, and recent events have only hardened her contempt for the president. “Every time he opens his mouth or sends a tweet, it just reinforces that,” said the 50-year-old Simi Valley legal secretary.

But Shayna Mintz, who voted for Trump and is glad she did, can’t understand the controversy raging around the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

“You do something wrong, you get separated. It would happen to me if I had my kids in the car,” said Mintz, 38, as she dashed into the post office in Santa Clarita. “I think they’re just putting it out now, blowing it out of proportion to make us feel bad.”

Dennis Chapman used precisely the same words — blown out of proportion — and said the reason is Trump.

“Every state in the Union, if the parents are caught doing illegal things, they put them in jail and the kids are separated then,” said Chapman, 68, the pastor at Simi Valley’s Calvary Baptist Church. “That happens all the time, and that’s exactly what’s happened on the border.”

There is, unsurprisingly, very little cross-party consensus save for one exception: a widely held belief that the country seems angrier and the political debate meaner than it has in a very long time.

The reason, voters agreed, is Trump.

They disagreed why that’s so.

Jerry Hayes says he didn’t vote for President Trump but still hoped he would help end the bitter partisanship in Washington.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Jerry Hayes didn’t support the president when he ran in 2016 but still hoped “he’d make good on his promises and drain the swamp and bring the parties together.”

“There’s too much us-versus-them in Washington,” said the 52-year-old Simi Valley insurance salesman, a Democratic-leaning independent who said he voted for Knight in the past but won’t do so again in November. “I had hoped this president would change that, but instead he’s taken it up about 10 notches.”

But Sydney Toth, a 71-year-old retiree, said it’s critics of the president, such as Rep. Maxine Waters, the fiery Los Angeles Democrat, who’ve lost their minds, plunging political debate into the gutter with the help of biased reporters who have it in for Trump.

“When she comes out and says, ‘You push back,’ she’s going to incite a freakin’ riot,” Toth said as children splashed through the fountain at a Simi Valley shopping center just off the Ronald Reagan Freeway. She said she’s not wild about Knight but will probably vote for him out of party loyalty.

Her friend and fellow retiree Barbara Moore, 70, is definitely backing the incumbent and delivered a nudge: Trump, she told her afternoon coffee companion, could use the support.

Sydney Toth, left, and her friend Barbara Moore say Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters are fueling a rise in political animosity.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

The November runoff between Knight and Hill appears a toss-up and will likely come down to motivation — which side is better at urging supporters to the polls — rather than persuasion. There may not be many left to sway, one way or the other.

Donna Edwards, a cafeteria worker for the Simi Valley Unified School District, summed up the reflexive way many seem to have made up their minds.

“I’m a Republican. Knight’s a Republican. Trump’s a Republican,” the 67-year-old said. “So I support them.”

Twitter: @markzbarabak