With the release of a controversial memo that bears his name, Rep. Devin Nunes has cemented his national identity as a relentless defender of President Donald Trump.
But critics are starting to portray the Tulare Republican as the man who poked the FBI in the eye with his memo, and local opponents wonder if that can be used against him when he runs for re-election this year.
Nunes penned the memo as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Over the objections of the FBI and the Justice Department, the Nunes memo was released Friday with Trump’s blessing.
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It alleges the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice hid relevant information from a judge in getting a secret warrant to monitor a Trump campaign volunteer, and suggests that they did so because upper-level federal law enforcement officials are motivated by anti-Trump and pro-Hillary Clinton bias.
Nunes has been in the national headlines regularly for about a year. With the release of the memo, he is now arguably one of the best known members of the House of Representatives in the Trump era.
But will his identity as the president’s ally – critics say “stooge” – hurt or help at home when he runs for re-election?
I wonder if he’s hoping to get a position within the Trump administration.
Thomas Holyoke, Fresno State political science professor
Nunes represents the 22nd Congressional District, an area that includes Tulare, Visalia, Clovis, part of Fresno and lots of farm country. He was first elected in 2002 and is in his eighth term.
In 2016, Trump carried the district with 52.1 percent compared to 42.6 percent for Clinton.
Four Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent are lining up to oppose Nunes in the June primary. Under California’s election rules, the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, will move on to the general election.
The Nunes for Congress campaign did not return phone calls, a text or emails this week seeking comment. His congressional office in Washington, D.C., referred a request for an interview with Nunes to the campaign. Nunes refuses to speak with The Bee.
Local observers say that despite the headlines and controversies that Nunes has been embroiled in, it will be difficult for a challenger to unseat him.
“It’s very much a Republican-leaning district,” said Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at Fresno State. “I strongly suspect there a lot of people in the district who support President Trump and think he’s doing the right thing here.”
Still, his new higher profile could weaken him a bit, Holyoke said: “His magnitude of victory may be less.” In 2016, Nunes won with 67.6 percent of the vote, down from 72 percent in 2014.
Holyoke said all the drama from Washington, D.C. suggests Nunes may have loftier ambitions than being a congressman.
“It seems to me Congressman Nunes is trying to establish more of a national profile for himself by emerging as one of the big, national defenders of President Trump,” he said. “I wonder if he’s hoping to get a position within the Trump administration. He’s made a calculation that his seat is safe enough that he can focus on big, national issues and become a national figure and move on from there.”
It may be a winning strategy, he said: “Trump values loyalty, and he’s (Nunes) being very loyal.”
Memo as issue
Of the four Democrats who have pulled papers to oppose Nunes, Democrat Andrew Janz has raised the most money and seems to have the support of the local Democratic establishment.
Janz, a prosecutor in the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, said he will use the Nunes memo against him.
“I look at this from a prosecutor’s standpoint,” he said. “We need the FBI to be a standalone agency in the Department of Justice. He’s eroding the line. It’s harmful for the country and the justice system. It really undermines the justice system.”
It really undermines the justice system.
Andrew Janz, candidate for Congress
Nunes has strayed too far from his Valley roots, Janz said: “He’s the Washington insider that people in the Valley hate.”
Janz said the memo controversy is helping his campaign fundraising efforts.
The campaign raised $100,000 in January alone, compared with $250,000 in all of last year, he said. (By contrast, Nunes has $3.8 million in cash on hand, according to Federal Elections Commission records.)
Meanwhile, Janz has 50,500 followers on Twitter compared to 61,500 for Nunes.
One of the Democrat’s supporters is Broadway actress Audra McDonald, a Roosevelt High alum who tweeted her support Thursday: “This is my hometown district. Flip it blue.”
Candidate Bobby Bliatout of Fresno, a health care organization CEO, said the memo hurts Nunes.
“He made a huge deal out of nothing,” Bliatout said. “He doesn’t care about people in the Valley. A lot of people are upset with him, even his base.”
But Michael Der Manouel Jr., a Fresno Republican and Nunes supporter, says a majority of district voters will keep supporting him. Just as Rep. Jim Costa has been challenged by credible Republicans but wins anyway, Nunes will best a Democrat, he said.
This FBI memo is not going to be anything but him fighting back.
Michael Der Manouel Jr., Fresno Republican
If 2018 is a “wave election” in which the party out of power sweeps Congress, Nunes will still hold his seat, Der Manouel said.
“We’ve had wave elections in the last three cycles and he’s still here,” he said.
“This FBI memo is not going to be anything but him fighting back” against an entrenched bureaucracy, he said. “It’s going to make some people on the left very angry” but that won’t matter because among district voters, “he still has the independents leaning center-right.”