Amanda Renteria has all the key qualities for a political candidate. She’s smart, savvy, energetic, telegenic and has a stellar résumé that includes degrees from both Harvard and Stanford, as well as work experience on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.
Seeking the 21st Congressional District seat, she raised $1.5 million, won some high-profile endorsements and was even able to coax Vice President Joe Biden to come for a campaign visit. She’s also a Hispanic Democrat in a district that was drawn for a Hispanic Democrat to represent. Hispanics are a majority in the district, and Democrats hold a 17-percentage-point registration advantage over Republicans.
Still, Renteria fared no better in her effort to oust Republican congressional incumbent David Valadao than his 2012 opponent, John Hernandez — a candidate who was perpetually broke and was never considered a serious threat to win the race. Kern and Fresno counties finished their vote count on Friday, and combined with all of Kings and parts of Tulare, the other two counties that together make up the 21st District, Valadao had 57.8% of the vote to Renteria’s 42.2%.
Two years ago, the vote-percentage breakdown was exactly the same.
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If someone with Renteria’s qualifications and bank account not only can’t win but can’t be competitive, it has many political pundits wondering if Valadao can ever be beaten in the 21st Congressional District. There are some political watchers who say the only hope for Democrats is to wait until congressional lines are redrawn ahead of the 2022 election — and hope that a newly drawn district is more winnable.
“I do think that, probably, Valadao is almost unassailable,” said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and former Republican legislative aide.
This time around, Valadao’s campaign included more than 350 volunteers and campaign interns. Those workers planted around 2,700 campaign signs, made 750,000 voter calls and visited 100,000 homes.
It’s not that Renteria’s campaign also didn’t do these things. But Valadao raised more than $2.5 million, which was almost $1 million more than Renteria. That helps in making the calls, visiting homes and buying even more campaign signs. Valadao also benefited from more than $700,000 in backing from independent group. Renteria, by comparison, had independent groups spend around $180,000 on the race.
Given all that, some experts say it isn’t about Valadao. The Democrats, they say, are losing races more than Republicans are winning them, and the main reason is vast numbers of registered Democrats aren’t voting. Others go even further, saying some of the Democrats that are voting — most likely Anglo males — are crossing over and supporting Valadao over Renteria.
On the other hand, Valadao has now won three straight races, one in the Assembly and two for Congress, in districts that cover roughly the same territory. The central San Joaquin Valley, Quinn said, is where people value “personalities over partisanship.” It’s why Democrats like George Zenovich and Republicans like Ken Maddy thrived, he said, and Valadao might be following in Maddy’s footsteps.
“The people get to like him and there’s really no compelling reason to turn him out,” Quinn said.
Others aren’t so sure. They say Renteria chose to challenge Valadao at just about the worst possible time for a Democrat. Turnout was dismal. There was no overriding issue to drive Democrat turnout. Gov. Jerry Brown was assured of re-election, leaving the election without an exciting top race. President Barack Obama was enormously unpopular in the district, including among Hispanic Democrats. Drought is ravaging the state and in the Valley Republicans are, fair or not, seen as better equipped to meet its challenges.
Those challenges not only stymied Renteria, Democrats said, they also hit Fresno Democrat Luis Chavez in his bid to defeat incumbent state Sen. Andy Vidak, a Hanford Republican.
And Chavez had a bigger voter-registration advantage and far more money than Renteria. There were only two races in the state Senate considered competitive, and the Vidak-Chavez clash was one of them. For that reason, the money poured in.
Chavez actually raised more than Vidak since Aug. 1 — $2.62 million to $2.04 million. Outside groups poured in an additional half million to either support Chavez or oppose Vidak.
Still, Chavez lost by 8.2 percentage points.
“The bottom line is turnout is what killed us,” said Make Scozzari, Chavez’s campaign consultant.
He pointed to the 31.6% turnout in Fresno County’s part of the 14th state Senate District. To be successful, Chavez needed that to be around 50%, Scozzari said.
“The reality is because of the registration, this is more about Democrats losing than Republicans winning,” Scozzari said. “(Democrats) just didn’t get out to vote, and I’m not sure what to do to motivate them to get out to vote.”
There is now concern that Renteria’s struggles may give both future candidates and Democratic donors pause, even two years from now when it could mark the best opportunity for Democrats to try and win the seat. Obama will leave office. A new Democratic presidential candidate will lead the ticket. And turnout is always highest in presidential election years.
In addition, there’s also history, Democrats and some political experts say.
The territory covered by Valadao — and Vidak — has been Democratic in years and decades past. As recently as three years ago, Kings County and a majority of the land now represented by Valadao in Congress and Vidak in the state Senate were represented by Democrats. It was Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio in the state Senate and Jim Costa in Congress. Before them it was Dean Florez in the Senate and Cal Dooley in Congress.
It all shows, Democrats say, that the Valley’s rural stretch between Fresno and Bakersfield doesn’t necessarily need to be ceded to the Republican Party.
But others see hints of a shift that could be long-term — and until Hispanic Democrats buy into the political process in large numbers, it favors Republicans.
Said Quinn: “I don’t see the temper of the times changing in the Central Valley any time soon.”