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Democrats line up to challenge Devin Nunes – and former candidate Janz already endorsed one

Rep. Devin Nunes’ big money rival from last year’s midterm election announced on Thursday that he’s backing a first-time political candidate who wants to unseat the Republican incumbent in 2020.

Andrew Janz, who raised more than $9.2 million in an unsuccessful challenge to Nunes in the 2018 election, is getting behind financial adviser and Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board member Phil Arballo for the 2020 San Joaquin Valley congressional race.

Arballo is one of three Democrats who’ve announced plans to challenge Nunes of Tulare, who has held his seat since 2003 and become a divisive national figure because of his staunch defense of President Donald Trump.

Nunes had his narrowest victory in his 16 years as a congressman last year, when Janz lost by five percentage points after raising $9.2 million in 2018 alone. Janz, a Fresno County deputy district attorney, is running for Fresno’s mayor’s office in 2020.

The other Democrats planning to challenge Nunes are Bobby Bliatout, who was the third place candidate in the primary for the 2018 election, and Dary Rezvani, another small business owner. Arballo said he has also had conversations with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, though he declined to go into the specifics of those conversations.

Arballo, a longtime Fresno resident, was running for a Fresno City Council seat before he withdrew to instead challenge Nunes.

No Republicans have announced a run against Nunes yet, and none challenged him in the 2018 cycle.

He’s become a partisan national figure disliked by those on the left because of his defense of Trump during investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But many on the right applaud his actions against the so-called “deep state,” whom they believe are working to undermine Trump and his agenda.

Nunes raised $12 million in the 2018 election cycle and has already raised $1.2 million in the first quarter of the 2020 election.

But Arballo and many Democrats contend Nunes has lost touch with the district. Arballo called Nunes an “absentee congressman” in an interview with McClatchy Thursday.

“He’s really taken us for granted, and as we saw last year, people are ready for a change,” Arballo said.

He said he’s ready to focus on clean water and air and fighting against Trump tariffs and other matters harmful to the district. China has instituted retaliatory tariffs on many agricultural products in the U.S., harming some staple industries in California’s Central Valley, and Trump threatened this week to also put a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods until immigration issues at the border have been resolved.

It’s a similar line of attack employed by Janz in 2018. But Democrats are hoping a key difference will matter this time — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has named Nunes as a target in 2020, something it didn’t do in 2018. That means more money, more staff and more time committed to defeating Nunes, rather than the campaign going it alone.

“From raising taxes on millions of Californians to voting to raise health care costs while cutting benefits, voters will remember come Election Day that Nunes stands with special interests over the Central Valley and chooses to continuously carry water for Trump instead of showing up and fighting for farmers and families in his district,” said Andy Orellana, spokesman for the DCCC.

Arballo also contends he’s more in tune with the needs of the district. He said he had to put himself through college at Fresno State, taking longer than usual as he had to work full time and use student loans to graduate. He and his wife, who now have two young children, are still paying off their student loans, he said.

“We deal with that personally, and we know what a problem it is in this country,” Arballo said.

Still, Republicans don’t feel overtly worried about the seat. Nunes’ office did not reply to a request for comment, but Rob Stutzman, a veteran Republican strategist based in Sacramento, said he believes Nunes was most at risk in 2018 when he was chairman of the House intelligence committee. Stutzman also expects more Republicans to vote in 2020 than in 2018, when Democratic enthusiasm propelled left-leaning voters to the polls.

Democrats won the House majority in 2018, and Nunes lost his post as intelligence committee chairman.

“Pus, if the belief is Nunes’ role as intelligence chairman made him a Democartic target, I think that’s been alleviated with him being out of the spotlight and no longer holding the gavel,” Stutzman said.

However, Arballo and the others do represent two trends that were successful for Democrats in 2018, according to Stutzman — raising candidates not currently in elected office, who therefore don’t have a record, and hitting on the right issues, like health care and the economy.

“Tariffs could be a tough issue for Republicans in 2020,” Stutzman said. “But on Nunes, it still probably won’t make a difference.”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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