With a little more than two weeks until Election Day, the evidence is mounting that a west-side congressional battle between Hanford Republican David Valadao and Fresno Democrat John Hernandez won't be the walkover that many had predicted.
Instead, it feels a lot like a repeat of two years ago, when the west side was then in the 20th District and Republican Andy Vidak was coming out of nowhere to challenge incumbent Democrat Jim Costa.
This time around, Valadao was thought to be gliding toward an easy win in the newly drawn 21st Congressional District. Valadao is an Assembly member whose district is within the 21st, so he has solid name recognition over Hernandez, who is registered outside the 21st.
But a few weeks ago an article in the National Journal -- a nonpartisan magazine that covers national politics and policy -- quoted a Republican saying private polling was moving "the wrong way" for Valadao.
A group known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies then put together a television ad attacking Hernandez and said it was spending more than $600,000 -- the kind of money usually reserved for competitive races -- to buy air time.
"I think Republicans are worried that if Valadao doesn't define himself, the person with the Hispanic surname may have an actual advantage," said Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which tracks federal races.
Like so many other political prognosticators, the Center for Politics' Crystal Ball e-magazine long ago stopped considering the race competitive. But now, Kondik says, it "may be moving back onto the table," although still rated as "likely Republican."
As the debate ensues, both the Valadao and Hernandez campaigns have released what they said were internal polls that offer contrasting views of the race.
Valadao's poll shows him with a 20-percentage-point lead -- 53% to 33% -- and 14% saying either they are undecided or will vote for neither. However, it is unknown how the questions on the race were asked.
Hernandez's poll shows Valadao at 41%, Hernandez with 37% and 22% undecided. Hernandez's campaign -- which also didn't release how the poll questions were asked -- called the four-percentage-point differential a "statistical tie" and suggested it could pull out a victory based on the large number of undecided voters.
Among Hernandez's advantages in the district -- which covers parts of Kern, Tulare and western Fresno counties, as well as all of Kings County -- are a nearly 15-percentage-point Democratic voter registration advantage, and a huge Hispanic electorate. Hernandez has vowed to get those voters to the polls.
But Hernandez's disadvantages are huge.
For starters, he really doesn't have any money. He raised just $53,000 between July 1 and Sept. 30, has just $17,700 in his account -- and $40,000 in unpaid bills. His campaign has constantly been in debt.
In addition, Hernandez's own Democratic Party -- or any of its political allies -- isn't helping with any money.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did announce on Wednesday that it was doing a pre-recorded phone call to district residents on Hernandez's behalf.
Hernandez, the caller says, would be the district's first Mexican-American member of Congress. The DCCC says 66% of the district's voting age population is Hispanic.
Valadao, in the meantime, has almost $800,000 in his campaign account, and he plans to run television commercials through the Nov. 6 general election.
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