Valadao wins big in District 21 primary, but November's congressional race another story

The Fresno BeeJune 7, 2014 

If you look at the raw numbers in Tuesday's primary election, Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria got crushed by Republican incumbent David Valadao of Hanford in the race for the 21st Congressional District.

With some votes still to be counted, Renteria is polling about 25% of the vote, while Valadao is getting a hefty 62%.

But Renteria's campaign and national Democrats says there's much more to Tuesday's election story, and rival Republicans shouldn't read too much into the results. Renteria did what she had to do Tuesday, which was finish ahead of Fresno Democrat John Hernandez.

Under the state's primary election rules, the top two finishers, regardless of political party, move on to November. That puts Renteria and Valadao in a one-on-one battle.

Renteria likes her chances, while Valadao's campaign believes the incumbent won't lose any of the voter strength he showed on Tuesday.

Political experts say the November election will be totally different than the primary contest.

"It is apples and oranges," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.

He cited the 2012 primary — the first under the state's new election rules — where districts with 27% Republican registration had Republican candidates winning 45% of the vote. But in the November general election, they won just 27% of the vote.

It's a talking point Democrats began pushing even before last week's election.

In 2012, primary election turnout among registered Republicans was 8.9% higher than Democrats. Projections for this year had that slightly higher at 9.9% higher turnout among registered Republicans vs. Democrats.

But come November, Democrats usually flex their electoral muscle.

"History shows it's foolish to project general election results from California's top-two primary system," said Tyrone Gayle, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is strongly behind Renteria.

"Look no further than the multiple Democrats who were elected to serve after finishing second in the unique, low-turnout primary."

But Valadao has twice proven conventional wisdom might not apply to him.

In his 2010 Assembly campaign, Gov. Jerry Brown won the district, but Valadao also won. In 2012, President Barack Obama won 55% of the vote; Valadao won almost 58% to capture his first term in Congress.

"Ticket splitting, no doubt," Tal Eslick, Valadao's chief of staff, said of voters who don't cast ballots strictly along a party line. And, given the party makeup of the district, it was clear Valadao won support from Democrats in 2010 and 2012.

So far this year, Valadao — a freshman seeking a second term in Congress — has won almost 62% of the primary vote across the 21st District, which covers all of Kings County and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties. He is winning more than 75% of the vote in Kings, his home county, and looks like he will only be kept below 50% of the vote in Kern County.

Ballots still are being counted, but it appears unlikely Renteria will win even 10,000 votes.

Still, Renteria is a different candidate than the other Democrat who has challenged Valadao in recent races — mostly because she looks like she will have plenty of money to run an aggressive campaign against the incumbent.

Hernandez, the perpetually broke Democrat who finished third in the primary this year, never seemed to get his 2012 campaign in gear and was crushed by Valadao.

"I appreciate what some folks think the numbers might look like, but the truth is we've just gotten started," Renteria said. "I like where we are."

The primary election, she said, was about introducing herself to voters — and beating Hernandez.

"Come November, it's all hands on deck," she said. "We'll be getting out there and getting out the vote."

Last week, Hoffenblum said, "Democrats and Latinos didn't turn out." Republican registration in the 21st Congressional District is just 31% — and Valadao is winning almost 62% of the vote.

Democrats currently hold a 14-percentage-point registration advantage in the district, and Hispanics make up around half the electorate.

"Valadao has to run a flawless campaign," Hoffenblum said of November. "All things being equal, a Democrat always wins."

A key to the race will be the gubernatorial showdown between Brown and Republican challenger Neel Kashkari. Nobody expects Kashkari to win statewide, but how he performs in the 21st District could determine if Valadao wins, Hoffenblum said.

He said Valadao "must appeal to a broad base of the electorate and hope that Kashkari keeps Brown from getting too far ahead (in the 21st District)."

Moving ahead, expect lots of talk about water and immigration, even though there isn't a lot of difference in what the two candidates are saying — basically that there is a need for increased storage and conveyance on water, and comprehensive immigration reform with some sort of path to citizenship.

It all may come down to who does the better job of getting their supporters to actually cast ballots.

Getting Democrats — and Hispanics — to the polls is a key part of Renteria's campaign strategy, spokeswoman Maria Machuca said. Given the registration advantage, it is clear that Democrats have struggled to take advantage of their edge over Republicans.

In the meantime, Valadao will not only turn to Republicans, but also to those voters who normally never support a GOP candidate, Eslick said. The campaign pitch will be simple — Valadao will cast himself as the local farmer who has never left the Valley, as opposed to Renteria, who returned from Washington, D.C. to run.

"We're always going to run like we're behind," Eslick said. "We'd love to put up an even higher (vote percentage) in the general, and we believe we can if we work hard."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter. "It is apples and oranges." — Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist, on comparing the November election with the primary contest

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