The apparent victory of Devin Mathis over Rudy Mendoza in the race for the 26th Assembly District in Tuesday’s election rocked the political world in Tulare County, where the district is centered.
Mathis received 55.6% of the vote to 44.4% for Mendoza. Both are Republicans.
Thousands of ballots remain to be counted and the race has not been called as a win for Mathis, but termed-out Assembly Member Connie Conway, R-Tulare, who now represents the district, called him on election night to congratulate him.
Conway, who endorsed Mendoza, gave the Mathis campaign credit: “Whatever his ground game was must have been a good one because he won.”
The geographically large district includes most of Tulare County, part of Kern County and all of Inyo County.
Mathis, 32, credited the win with sticking to his message of “putting people over politics” and “phone banking” — telephoning voters who get vote-by-mail ballots and asking for their vote.
“We reached out to them early,” he said. “One of the biggest things that helped is we started getting the message out after vote by mail started going out.”
He said he issued one targeted mailer, made use of his Facebook page and walked precincts in Visalia, Tulare and Porterville.
Mendoza said he isn’t giving up on politics despite the jarring loss.
“Although the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, I’m proud of the campaign we ran,” he said.
Mendoza, 39, is a Woodlake City Council member and mayor, while Mathis is a veteran’s advocate who served 12 years in the Army and was wounded in the Iraq War.
Mendoza raised by far the most money — $279,000, compared to only $22,600 raised by Mathis.
He should have won with a war chest like that, said Tim Orman, owner of Orman Communications, which advised the Mendoza campaign.
“I am completely baffled,” Orman said. “Maybe there’s some confusion with Devin Nunes and Bob Mathias.”
Mendoza was endorsed by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and many other politicians.
Johnny Amaral, chief of staff to Nunes, said Wednesday that people called all day asking, “ ‘What on earth happened?’ It was shocking to me, it was shocking to a lot of people.”
Amaral said he believes the “top two” system in California in which two people from the same party end up on the general election ballot is making it harder to campaign.
“It creates a whole lot of unknowns,” because voters from the other party find it hard to choose a candidate, he said.
Chuck Glenn, a Visalia marketing consultant and campaign adviser not involved in either campaign, said Mendoza was so strongly identified with the Nunes camp that it might have hurt him with voters.
“It’s like a kid eating his green beans,” Glenn said. “ ‘Eat it, it’s good for you.’ They were forcing it on people.”
Ruben Macareno, chairman of the Tulare County Democratic Party, said Democrats voted for Mathis over Mendoza “because Democrats have a dislike of Devin Nunes.”
But Amaral rejected the argument, noting that Nunes received 72% of the vote in the election.
Macareno also said Latinos who might have voted for Mendoza out of solidarity held back because “Rudy made it clear he is not ‘a Latino candidate.’ ”
Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book that tracks the state’s elections, said that although “we all hate to say racism is involved,” having a Hispanic last name might have hurt Mendoza.
He noted that in an Assembly race in the Coachella Valley that pitted two Republicans against each other — just like the 26th Assembly District — in the race between a Hispanic and a white, the Hispanic candidate lost.
Mendoza said “a lot of different theories” are being bandied about regarding his defeat.
“What’s important is we did our best to get our message out,” he said. “Unfortunately, the voters picked a different candidate. We have to respect that.”