Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio on Tuesday pulled out of a budding Valley congressional race, a move that potentially clears a path to Congress for Hanford Republican David Valadao.
"It's David's district to lose now," said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. "The Democrats are going to have to scramble to find a viable candidate."
That candidate could be former state Sen. Dean Florez, who has been contemplating a run in the newly constituted 21st Congressional District for months but has taken no steps toward making it a reality -- including raising money.
Both Rubio and Valadao have formed federal campaign committees. Florez still hasn't.
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Florez did not respond to requests for comment, but last month said there was "plenty of time" to make a decision.
Tuesday's surprising turn of events came after Rubio -- a first-term state senator -- looked to be on a high-profile political collision course with Valadao, 34, a freshman state Assembly member.
In a statement posted on his website, Rubio, 34, said "family comes first."
Rubio said his second child, an infant daughter, was the reason for his decision. She was born with Down syndrome.
"When the day comes that she may read this statement, all I can say to her is 'thank you', for she has reminded me that priorities in life should always be God, family and then career," Rubio wrote. "... My family needs me more today than Congress does."
Rubio -- whose state Senate term runs through 2014 -- did not return an email seeking comment.
The 21st District -- which includes much of rural southern and western Fresno County, all of Kings and a chunk of Kern counties -- provides a rare opportunity for political hopefuls because it lacks an incumbent.
Most of the district is currently represented by Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat.
But Costa has opted to run in another, more Democratic Party-friendly district that stretches from Fresno north through Merced County.
Democrats in the new 21st Congressional District have a nearly 11 percentage-point voter registration edge, and both President Barack Obama in 2008 and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010 won the district.
Still, Republicans insist the district is theirs for the taking, and there are indications the GOP was gearing up to run a series of ads against Rubio.
Some Republicans and Democrats -- Valadao included -- said they had heard rumors that Rubio might pull out, but Tuesday's move still caught many of them off guard.
"I was surprised by it, but I think ultimately he made the right decision," Assembly Member Henry T. Perea said. The freshman Democrat from Fresno added that Rubio would "have made a great candidate."
Valadao said Rubio "made the decision that is best for his family, and I wish him the best."
Though he had not yet formally announced, Rubio's congressional fundraising committee had stockpiled $220,000 as of Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Valadao reported in mid-October that he had raised $165,000 for the congressional race. He had $155,507 available as of Sept. 30. He has attracted early and large contributions from the likes of Coalinga rancher John Harris and Bill Smittcamp, president of Wawona Frozen Foods in Clovis.
On Tuesday, Valadao said he should have more than $350,000 in the bank by this weekend, which marks the end of the latest fundraising period.
Rubio's decision likely makes life easier for politically involved farmers, who may now be relieved of having to make a tough choice between two locally popular contenders.
Underscoring the fraternal difficulties a Rubio-versus-Valadao race might have caused for Valley farmers, California Citrus Mutual on Sept. 29 contributed $1,500 to Valadao's congressional campaign.
The next day, records show, California Citrus Mutual contributed $1,500 to Rubio.
Each legislator is vice-chair of his respective chamber's Agriculture Committee.
Nelsen said he told the men that he was giving equal amounts to both, and would see who used it more wisely.
Either man, he said, could do a good job representing Valley agriculture, particularly if appointed to the House Agriculture Committee.
Nelsen did not offer similar enthusiasm for potential Democratic candidate Dean Florez, who he said has "been a problem for agriculture" in some areas.
Florez, for instance, successfully pushed a series of bills through the state Legislature to reduce agriculture emissions.
With Rubio out of the way, Valadao said he planned to continue as if he has an opponent.
"I've always worked as if I was running against Rubio or Florez," he said. "I work as if I have the best candidate in the world running against me."