No independent-expenditure money is pouring in. The Washington Beltway crowd has largely stopped paying attention. But 21st Congressional District Democratic challenger Amanda Renteria says early mail ballot returns show she’s in a competitive race against incumbent Hanford Republican David Valadao.
As of Monday, Democrats had returned 52% of the 11,368 mail ballots. Republicans were at 35%, and others such as those with no political party preference made up the remaining 21%, according to Political Data Inc., a California firm that provides detailed breakdowns of voting districts. The 17-percentage-point Democratic lead in returned mail ballots matches the party’s voter-registration edge over the GOP.
No one will know how those 11,368 ballots are marked until elections officials announce the total count after the polls close on Nov. 4. The Valadao campaign says the Renteria campaign is reading too much into the early numbers.
But the mail ballot returns are close to 10% of the total 2012 turnout — a large enough sample to show Renteria this year is running strong against Valadao, her campaign says.
The numbers are better than in 2012, when in the end Democrats held just a small advantage in returned absentee ballots over Republicans — 46% to 41%. In addition, 42% of the mail ballot returns to date this year are from Hispanic voters, Political Data says. That marks the largest mail-ballot return increase for Hispanics over 2012 of any congressional district in the state, Renteria’s campaign says.
“From day one, my campaign has been about showing all people of this district that they matter and they deserve an effective voice in Congress,” Renteria said. “Voters are responding positively and we will keep working hard to earn every vote.”
As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took money planned for Renteria and used it instead to shore up incumbents in tougher re-election campaigns, and as the political prognosticators changed their predictions to an almost certain Valadao victory, Renteria said her campaign was about more than outside groups funding massive independent television and mail campaigns.
The Democrats’ 17-percentage-point registration advantage is significant — and is a major reason the race is considered competitive — but history shows a low turnout by those voters. Renteria and her supporters have pleaded to district Democrats to vote in what has become a centerpiece of her campaign. Those exhortations, Renteria supporters say, are working.
But Valadao’s campaign says making assumptions based on very early absentee returns is an inexact science, at best.
The mail ballot totals change daily as the counties that make up the 21st District — all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno — update counts of the ballots that have been returned. Also, if, for instance, a strong Democratic county like Kern counted more mail ballots than a strong Republican county like Kings, it would skew the data, the Valadao campaign says.
“You have no idea what the makeup is,” Valadao campaign spokesman Tal Eslick said.
Finally, there’s the unknown answer of the actual vote inside the mail ballot. County elections offices note that the ballot has been returned and who returned it — and outside companies parse the data, including their party registration — but they don’t tally the vote.
Eslick points out that Valadao won almost 58% of the vote in 2012. A vote total that high means even with support from Republicans and independents, Valadao still won votes from Democrats.
“If it wasn’t so scary that Amanda Renteria’s campaign is being bankrolled by D.C. liberals and Bay Area environmental groups, we would dismiss this most recent claim as laughable,” Eslick said. “Voters in the 21st Congressional District, regardless of political party, know that David Valadao shares their values and is fighting for them in Congress.”
Renteria campaign manager Michael Trujillo shot back, saying “it’s unfortunate that Tal Eslick sounds more like Baghdad Bob than anyone else,” a reference Saddam Hussein’s information minister who gained notoriety when he denied U.S. troops had entered the Iraqi capital when in reality they already had rolled in.
Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state’s elections, was also cautious about reading too much into early absentee returns, but did say it shows something that he’s believed all along — that the 21st District race is competitive.
“I still think she’s in this race,” he said. “I've been saying that from beginning. She’s raised over a million bucks, for crying out loud. It’s not like she’s sitting there like (unsuccessful 2012 Democratic Party nominee John) Hernandez with a buck 98 in the bank.”
In fact, Renteria has proven herself an effective fundraiser, even though Valadao has criticized her for mostly relying on donors outside of the central San Joaquin Valley. She raised more than $1.44 million, and in the most recent quarter, which ended Oct. 1, she raised almost $400,000 and had more than $430,000 cash on hand.
Still, Valadao raised more in the same period — almost $550,000, and his total contributions almost doubled Renteria’s. He has more than $1.14 million in his campaign account.