Congressional incumbents in the central San Joaquin Valley appear to be safe going into the Nov. 8 general election, but two races could be worth a second glance: the 21st District, currently held by Hanford Republican David Valadao; and the 16th District, currently held by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.
Valadao’s challenger in his race for a third term is Bakersfield Democrat Emilio Huerta, son of United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta.
In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 17 percent, Emilio Huerta hopes the tumultuous campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will push what he identified as core supporters – Latinos and low-income voters – to the polls.
Valadao, who captured 54 percent of the vote in the June primary to Huerta’s 24 percent and Fowler Democrat Daniel Parra’s 22 percent, believes his recent successes, hard work within the district and staggering fundraising advantage will carry him to another victory.
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Earlier this month, Trump was thrust into the local race by a Huerta ad attacking Valadao for supporting Trump. The ad, paid for by a Democratic super PAC, quoted Valadao as saying he would “absolutely” support Trump. Valadao had endorsed Jeb Bush last fall but was asked whether he would support whoever the Republicans nominated – even Trump or Ben Carson, the frontrunners at the time? Valadao said, “absolutely.” (Note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Valadao chose Trump over all others.)
“We wish we had a leader in the Valley who could have prevented Donald Trump,” Huerta said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s bad for America to have a leader who promotes sexual assault and the degradation of women.”
Valadao’s waning Trump connection
Valadao in June distanced himself from Trump’s anti-Hispanic rhetoric. After a recording of Trump bragging about using his celebrity to sexually assault women surfaced recently, Valadao took a much firmer anti-Trump stance, saying in a statement: “As a father to a young girl and two sons, teaching my children to treat women with respect is something I take very seriously. Condoning unwanted sexual advances toward women is inexcusable.”
On Wednesday, Valadao said he would not support Trump. When asked if that meant he would not vote for his party’s nominee, Valadao refused to answer, saying instead that he was focused only on his race and “not getting involved in anything on the presidential side.”
Valadao elaborated on that focus, saying that just last week, his 250 volunteers knocked on 7,000 doors and made 53,000 phone calls. His campaign recently put out advertisements, and he added that he will report $1.25 million in on-hand cash to the Federal Elections Commission.
Huerta was the first to admit he has nowhere near that amount of money. This is the lawyer’s first foray into politics, and he said he is taking a grassroots approach to campaigning. He believes his time spent as the UFW’s general counsel and decades of experience in his mother’s organization has given him a strong feel for the problems faced by Valley Latinos and low-income residents.
“The 21st is one of the poorest districts in the country, and Latinos need to speak up and get involved to elevate ourselves out of poverty,” Huerta said. “Our children are exposed to the worst air quality and pesticides. Only 50 percent graduate high school. Ten percent graduate from college.”
He continued: “Low-income communities are still lacking basic services. Mendota doesn’t have a bank. Huron doesn’t have a high school. There’s toxic water running along I-5.”
Cooperation across the aisle
Valadao vehemently disagreed with Huerta’s assertions.
“There’s no other member in Congress who does a better job at community outreach than me,” Valadao said. He noted that his staff makes thousands of calls before any public event, and he hosts “tele-town” halls – essentially conference calls for Valadao and up to 30,000 constituents.
One of Valadao’s biggest accomplishments in four years in Congress is also his most recent. He authored a bill, with across-the-aisle support from Costa, that would scale back San Joaquin River restoration efforts in an effort to provide more water to Valley agriculture.
It is the latest of several water bills to make it through the U.S. House of Representatives. Valadao and Costa also had water-relief efforts added to several Senate energy bills. In all, three separate water items are in front of the Senate.
“We’re closer than we have ever been,” Valadao said.
Valadao appears safe, having beaten Amanda Renteria – an up-and-coming Democrat and current top Hillary Clinton aide – soundly in 2014. Many political analysis websites have declared his seat safe, although the Cook Political Report classifies it as “leaning Republican.”
The seat of Valadao’s partner in water, Costa, also seems to be secure.
Costa, Tacherra square off again
Costa is running for a seventh term, this time against Republican Johnny Tacherra, the Fresno County dairyman who barely lost to Costa in 2014. The incumbent has secured a massive fundraising advantage and is expected to pick up a further boost by those motivated to hit the polls in an effort to vote down Trump.
Costa, a career politician, said he still has a lot to accomplish in the Valley. He wants to see the Valadao legislation pushed through the Senate, but he also hopes to get more long-term water-relief efforts pushed through, including the construction of Temperance Flat Dam..
He also hopes to find lasting solutions to the Fresno area’s decaying infrastructure and provide better public transportation.
“We’re still living off infrastructure investments our parents and grandparents made,” Costa said. “By 2030, California will have 50 million people. We need to make those investments now.”
Costa added that infrastructure investments also would create thousands of good-paying jobs. Unemployment in the 16th District has fallen to single digits, Costa said, but he believes it is still too high.
However, Tacherra believes the longtime incumbent has lost touch with his district. He accused Costa of being far too engrained in the national politics system – so much so that he isn’t bringing any benefits for his constituents back from Washington, D.C.
“The people in this district wanted me back,” Tacherra said. “They said, ‘We almost got you in last time. Now it’s time to seal the deal.’ ”
He said Costa hasn’t done enough to secure water for Fresno County. He added that he would partner with fellow Republicans Valadao and Devin Nunes of Tulare to approach California’s senators and form a mutual understanding.
“I’m that spark that D.C. needs to start changing things when it comes to water,” Tacherra said.
The challenger acknowledged a massive fundraising difference between the two campaigns. He also admitted that the Republican Party has not offered him much support.
Still, Tacherra believes he will win. On Friday, his campaign released a poll conducted by Oregon pollster Action Solutions that put Tacherra ahead by eight points. The poll surveyed 411 respondents within the district; it had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
Costa balked at the notion of Tacherra polling even with him, let alone ahead. He noted that he received 57 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, and he feels confident about improving that margin.
“I haven’t had a day off since Labor Day weekend, and I don’t intend to take one until after the election,” Costa said. “What has he done since the primary? Put up signs. All a sign can do is tell people your name. It doesn’t make you vote for him.”
4th Congressional District
Democrat Bob Derlet is challenging Republican incumbent Tom McClintock of Elk Grove. Derlet, a physician, received 28 percent of primary votes to McClintock’s 62 percent.
22nd Congressional District
Republican incumbent Devin Nunesof Tulare will face off against Democrat Louie Campos, a paralegal. Nunes received 64 percent of the primary vote to Campos’ 30 percent.
23rd Congressional District
Democrat Wendy Reed will challenge Republican incumbent Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. Reed, an administrator for a land conservancy, received 27 percent of the primary vote to McCarthy’s 55 percent.