All around the central San Joaquin Valley, it's easy to find a sign denigrating Rep. Jim Costa — even in parts that the Fresno Democrat no longer represents in Congress, such as Kings County.
The signs criticize him for supporting the state's high-speed rail project and blame him for the region's water woes. They often tie him to either Bay Area Rep. Nancy Pelosi or Sen. Barbara Boxer — or both.
As if the signs aren't enough, there often is verbal grousing about Costa, and threats to defeat him in the next congressional election.
"Jim Costa has been in office for about 30 years," Fresno businessman and Central Valley Tea Party media coordinator Serafin Quintanar said. "That's a long time to make lots of enemies."
The intense partisan criticism seemed to ramp up after President Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, which was paired with Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress and Sacramento-San Joaquin water delivery cutbacks due to federal environmental regulations.
By 2010, the anti-Costa signs were appearing in what was then Costa's 20th Congressional District, which stretched from Fresno south to Bakersfield. Now, Costa's 16th Congressional District runs from Fresno north and includes part of Madera County and all of Merced County.
And the signs have followed him like a creditor chasing an unpaid debt.
Still, Costa endures.
"Jim Costa has been representing the Fresno Valley area for decades and has the job down to a science," Stanford University political science professor Bruce Cain said.
Since first being elected to Congress in 2004 with a seven-percentage-point win over Bakersfield Republican Roy Ashburn, Costa has had only one serious challenge — his narrow 2010 re-election win over now-state Sen. Andy Vidak.
That win — by just three percentage points — was the Republican Party's best shot, coming in a strong GOP year and with water continuing to be a contentious flashpoint in the Valley.
Costa was unchallenged in 2006, won nearly 75% of the vote in 2008 and coasted to an easy win in 2012.
This year marks another election season, with Costa seeking re-election in the 16th District. So far it looks like five people — four Republicans and a Democrat — are lining up to challenge him.
The early line from political experts and prognosticators, however, is that Costa's prospects remain as safe as ever.
His seat isn't considered remotely competitive by either the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report or "Sabato's Crystal Ball," a national look at races published by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates it "likely Democrat."
"We're going to work hard, as we always do, and raise as much money as we can," Costa said. "I'm pleased with the campaign report from the end of last year. We plan to do that and better over the next 10 months."
Costa raised $600,000 last year and had more than $550,000 on hand as of Dec. 31.
Still, critics find plenty to dislike about Costa.
"Obviously, most Republicans dislike him just for being a Democrat," Quintanar said. "Conservatives dislike him because he is a liberal."
But Quintanar pointed to water as a major failing for Costa. He hasn't been able to wield any power in Congress to either loosen environmental regulations or bring additional water deliveries to the Valley, Quintanar said.
Costa, however, says he is doing something, pointing to legislation he introduced last May that would restrict the Endangered Species Act's influence over delta pumping. It is, Costa said, the only bill currently before Congress that deals with the environmental regulations that limit the Valley's water deliveries.
"I will continue to fight for more water for our Valley," he said.
But there are plenty of political land mines in the Valley, some political experts and Costa's detractors said. Water is only the most obvious, given California's drought.
Other controversial issues include Costa's support for the state's planned high-speed rail network, which would cut through the heart of the Valley, and the unknown question of whether the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act — known as Obamacare — will hurt any of its supporters.
These reasons — as well as the fickleness of Valley political districts — are why Allan Hoffenblum never dismisses the possibility of a tough re-election for Costa.
"I always have (Costa) on my radar," said the longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.
So far this year, Costa's challengers are:
Fresno Republican Steve Crass, who is a Merced native currently working as an attorney for the Baker Manock and Jensen law firm.
Crass served six years as a U.S. Navy officer, where he was a judge advocate at the Washington Navy Yard and later advised SEAL Team Two's commander during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He later went on to be a deputy district attorney in Merced County and then an assistant U.S. Attorney in Fresno's federal courthouse before moving into private practice.
Joanna Garcia-Botelho. Federal Election Commission documents list her as a Fresno Republican, and the professional information on Project Vote Smart says she has an agricultural business degree from Fresno State University and law degree from the San Joaquin College of Law, though there is no listing of her on the California State Bar website.
She also is listed as the CEO of LJB Farms and the owner of Joey's Well Drilling & Construction.
Federal documents show she raised $700 in the quarter ending Sept. 30.
Dr. Loraine Goodwin, a Madera Democrat. Goodwin, who was a Madera Unified School District trustee from 2006-10, has made several unsuccessful runs for office, including two years ago in the 16th District.
Mel Levey, a Merced Republican. Levey has some advantages that Hoffenblum says could help if the race becomes competitive. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, his mother Barbara Levey is Merced County's Assessor-Clerk-Recorder.
Johnny Tacherra, a Republican from Burrel near Riverdale. Tacherra, a dairyman/business owner, unsuccessfully sought to challenge Costa two years ago.
He was the first to file papers last August with the Federal Election Commission to run this year, and officially kicked off his campaign this past Tuesday. He had raised $3,600 through end of September.
Only Tacherra and Garcia-Botelho reported having any campaign funds.
The challenge for each of the candidates, analysts said, is to give voters a reason to unseat Costa. They must do so in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans in registration by 16 percentage points, and where voters had favored Obama over both Republicans John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, as well as Gov. Jerry Brown over Republican Meg Whitman in 2010.
It is also 40% Hispanic.
"That will be the hard part for any Republican to break," Hoffenblum said. "It is a typical Central Valley district, trending Democrat because of the Latino vote."
But Quintanar, the Central Valley Tea Party media coordinator, thinks that either high-speed rail or the Affordable Care Act — or both — could be Costa's Achilles heel.
"Basically, time has taken its toll on Costa because you can't fool, I mean please, all of the people all of the time," Quintanar said. "Baggage builds up over the decades. Rhetoric and unfulfilled promises start to take a toll at some point."
It likely won't be that easy, said Cain, the Stanford political scientist.
"They could try to pin his (Affordable Care Act) vote on him," Cain said. "So the question is: are there enough people angry about that in the district to take him out? Because that is what it is going to take, something like that."
Election 2014: Key dates
Dec. 27: Candidates began gathering signatures for in-lieu petitions to avoid paying filing fees. Judicial candidates have until Feb. 5; everyone else has until Feb. 20.
Feb. 10: Candidate filing begins; runs through March 7 (extended to March 12 for races where the incumbent isn't running for re-election)
May 5: First day to vote by mail (also the day most sample ballots are mailed)
May 19: Last day to register to vote
May 27: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail
June 3: Primary Election Day
Nov. 4: General Election Day
Fresno County: 2221 Kern St., Fresno; details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)
Tulare County: 5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia; details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300
Kings County: 1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford; details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401
Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera; details: fblinks.com/madvote or (559) 675-7720
Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced; details: fblinks.com/mervote or (209) 385-7541
Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa; details: fblinks.com/marvote or (209) 966-2007
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.