SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (CN) – At a busy intersection near Santa Clarita City Hall in Southern California on Tuesday morning, Phil Koek held up a sign in support of Jess Phoenix, a candidate in a crowded field of Democrats hoping to challenge an incumbent Republican this November in what will surely be one of California’s most hotly contested congressional races.
“She’s not a politician, she’s a scientist,” Koek said of Phoenix, a geologist and co-founder of an environmental research nonprofit.
Koek – who for the first time is throwing “vigorous support” behind a candidate – said he’s “inspired” by Phoenix’s grassroots, progressive values and the opportunity for a Democrat to flip the 25th District seat currently held by Republican incumbent Steve Knight.
“This district is winnable,” Koek said. “It’s about who gets out the vote.”
The 25th is located on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles County, which itself is becoming more and more Democratic. It’s a district at the center of the national fight waged by Democrats for control of the House of Representatives.
In the state’s top-two system, the two candidates with the most votes proceed to the November general election regardless of party affiliation.
Knight is expected to claim one of those spots on Tuesday. He’s so confident about securing that spot that he decided to spend the day in Washington, according to campaign spokesman Matt Rexroad.
Linto Thomas, a campaign staff member for Democratic opponent Bryan Caforio, said it was “par for the course” to see Knight stay in D.C. during the primary.
“[Knight] is more concerned with pushing Trump’s agenda,” Thomas said.
Besides attorney Caforio, Democratic candidates include Katie Hill, the director of a homeless services nonprofit, and Mary Pallant.
Both Caforio and Hill have polled ahead of Phoenix in a race that candidates initially agreed would to be “clean” and free of mudslinging between fellow Democrats. The goal was supposed to be simple: get a Democrat on the ballot and defeat Knight in November.
But Caforio – who lost to Knight in 2016 by 6.2 percent – has been accused by Hill’s campaign of running a negative campaign.
Caforio has criticized Hill’s nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, raised doubts about her campaign finance ethics and compared her positions to those of Knight and Trump.
At a Caforio campaign office in Santa Clarita, Craig Sherman said he backed Caforio because he is the “most progressive candidate” and the best suited to defeat Knight.
Sherman said he got involved in a campaign for the first time because he “couldn’t stand seeing the country” continue a slide toward conservatism fomented by Trump.
“The bottom line is we have to flip this seat,” Sherman said. “We have to hold Trump accountable and protect the environment, the Dreamers and democracy.”
Hill meanwhile proudly boasts about her “F” rating by the National Rifle Association in a social media ad posted Tuesday.
“Katie may have received an F from the NRA but she’s a ‘Mom’s Demand Action Gun Sense’ candidate,” the ad said. “[She] will take real steps to create meaningful gun reform.”
Jess Rivas went to high school with Hill and has knocked on doors for her campaign for the past month.
Rivas, an attorney, said Hill “stands out from the pack” because she understands the generation of people saddled by education debt, unable to obtain a home mortgage and trying to scrape by in the gig economy.
“She grew up [in the district] and understands the community,” Rivas said.
Supporters of the Democratic candidates in the race will have to get progressive voters out to the polls in cities like Santa Clarita, which has only slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, 38 to 34 percent.
It was the first city in LA County to adopt a measure officially opposing SB 54, the so-called Sanctuary State bill that limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement officials.
Koek said the city has always had a base of Democratic voters but is still stubbornly Republican in many ways.
After voting at their local fire station in Santa Clarita, Jack and Marie Mutz said they were hopeful their pick for governor – Republican John Cox – could clinch an upset victory and claim the second spot on the ballot behind Democratic front-runner Gavin Newsom. Pundits expect Newsom to easily win a spot on the ballot in today’s primary.
The Mutzes want lower taxes and a repeal of the state’s “gas tax” which has been a main target for Republicans.
“We’re hopeful but it will be difficult for a Republican in this state,” said Jack Mutz, who moved to Santa Clarita 40 years ago from Chicago with Marie, his high school sweetheart.
At a barbershop on Railroad Avenue, a group of Latino barbers cut hair and lounged on couches as they waited for clients. No one in the room said they would be voting Tuesday.
One barber, who declined to share his name, said the barbershop is always a space for people to “get a haircut and vent” about politics, even if they didn’t vote.
“People open up here,” he said. “Most people disagree with what’s going on nationally in politics.”
Jennifer Estrada, a College of the Canyons student on summer break, voted at the American Legion Post polling place in nearby Newhall.
She said she backed former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for governor and Bryan Caforio for the congressional seat because both of them have been supportive of “dreamers” and a pathway to citizenship for individuals who are undocumented.
Estrada – whose parents are undocumented and hail from Guerrero, Mexico – said Santa Clarita is still “very conservative.”
She said she has noticed more involvement from young people and a “small shift” in the city towards progressive politics but remains uncertain about the district “flipping” in the future.
“I hope it will flip but I don’t think it will,” she said.