This week, for the first time in months, the National Republican Congressional Committee took note of Emilio Huerta, the Bakersfield Democrat who is trying to unseat incumbent 21st Congressional District Republican David Valadao.
That for the most part is more national attention than Huerta has received from his own party, at least at the national level.
As the Nov. 8 election nears, when national Democrats ponder political gains in California, they seem focused not on taking out Valadao but instead on ousting incumbent Republican congressmen Darrell Issa, Steve Knight and Jeff Denham.
Two of three major national political handicappers have the three races – Denham’s in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, Issa’s in coastal Southern California and Knight’s in parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties – as toss-ups. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report on Thursday came out with new rankings that give Issa’s and Denham’s Democratic challengers more of a chance next month.
Could the long-forgotten Huerta be a late arrival to the party?
This race may actually be heating up.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a national look at federal races published by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato
“This race may actually be heating up,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a national look at federal races published by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
As of Friday, the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC had invested $844,221 in the district, which covers all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties. The PAC has released Spanish- and English-language ads supporting Huerta.
On the other side of the aisle, American Action Network, an advocacy organization affiliated with the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, is spending $750,000 in the district. And Valadao himself is piling on with his own ad that has this tagline on Huerta: “Corrupt. Selfish. Wrong.”
“Valadao is still a clear favorite, but this outside activity could indicate that an upset is possible,” Kondik said.
On paper, the Democratic Party has two major advantages in the 21st District – a 17 percentage point party registration advantage over the GOP and a 57 percent majority of Latinos who are registered voters. President Barack Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012, and on Friday, Obama officially endorsed Huerta. And, of course, there is controversial GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, a plank Democrats have been using as a battering ram against vulnerable Republican congressmen nationwide.
That said, Valadao owns another side of history: He has trounced his Democratic challengers in 2012 and 2014.
This year, Democrats struggled to find a challenger before Huerta stepped up. He is the son of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, which in the 21st District can be a blessing and a curse, both because of her long history of working for farmworker rights in an agriculture-dominated district.
The NRCC took note of Huerta after the Los Angeles Times did a story about the importance of water in the district.
Water is the issue
In the story, Valadao said wherever he goes, water is the first thing he hears about. And in Washington, D.C., Valadao has focused on legislation to increase water deliveries for San Joaquin Valley farmers and ranchers.
Huerta said in the same story that if elected he would at that time work with his House colleagues to craft a water bill that could actually get signed into law.
“Just this week, Huerta admitted that he has no plan to address the Valley’s water crisis, proving he is badly out of touch with 21st District families and not fit to represent them in Congress,” NRCC spokesman Zack Hunter said Thursday. “Luckily for local farmers and families, David Valadao doesn’t just have a bipartisan plan to bring water to the Valley; he’s gotten it passed through the House of Representatives.”
On Monday, Huerta and his mother spoke to students at Fresno State, and during the talk Huerta took a different approach to the water issue. Yes, getting farmers water is important, he said, but right now the priority is getting clean drinking water for low-income communities.
Huerta cited last week’s story in The Bee reporting that the State Water Resources Control Board wrote a confidential letter to some Tulare County farmers saying that their operations caused nitrates to get into drinking water and that the contamination must be replaced with a clean source.
In addition, Huerta questioned the need for a new reservoir, saying if efforts aren’t made to conserve and reclaim water, there won’t be much water to put into a new lake.
Building a new reservoir at Temperance Flat above Millerton Lake has been a key push for Valley Republicans in Congress.
Hunter, the NRCC spokesman, said despite the recent attention, there is no indication the race is truly competitive. Huerta, he noted, can’t even unite his own party. Fowler Democrat Daniel Parra, who narrowly lost to Huerta in the June primary, has not endorsed Huerta and said Thursday he won’t endorse in the race.
“Emilio Huerta has been an abysmal candidate from the very start, which is why he was roundly rejected by local Democrats,” Hunter said.
Republicans cite Huerta’s absence from the top tier of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red-to-Blue” program, which targets races where Democrats believe they can take out an incumbent Republican, as well as campaign fundraising. Valadao has raised $2.27 million to Huerta’s $482,000. Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria – now Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s national political director – raised more than $1.7 million in a losing effort in 2014.
And even in the closing days of the election, Valadao isn’t letting up on the fundraising. Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan came to Fowler for a fundraiser that will add to Valadao’s campaign coffers.
Trump: A factor or not?
For Democrats, the trump card in the 21st District could be Trump. Or maybe not.
In hitting Denham, Issa and Knight, the DCCC has consistently worked to tie them to Trump. But Kondik said it’s not a stretch to imagine Trump “doing quite poorly” in the heavily Hispanic 21st District, which could hurt Valadao. That said, the 21st District has long proven itself to be outside the mainstream. Strategies that work elsewhere for Democrats don’t necessarily work in the 21st District.
Trump could be one of those issues. Close to a year ago, Valadao said in an interview that he “absolutely” would “stick with the winner from my party” – even if it was Trump. But in June, Valadao did a U-turn, saying he couldn’t support a candidate who “denigrates people based on their ethnicity, religion or disabilities.”
Then following a leaked tape that captured Trump making crude comments about women and bragging that he could kiss them, grab their genitals and get away with it because he is a star, Valadao used even stronger language in refuting Trump: “I have repeatedly stated I cannot support Donald Trump, and this type of disgusting behavior is exactly why.”
Such strong comments can make it more difficult for Democrats to tie Valadao to Trump. The matter is complicated further in the 21st District, which is poor and agriculture dependent and where, it seems, water is the top issue no matter what. For those reasons, using Trump to attack Valadao may not resonate like it does in other districts.
Still, the 21st District is likely always to remain competitive – at the very least until the next redrawing of congressional districts following the 2020 Census – and it probably explains why Democrats are making the late push to oust Valadao. Given the myriad advantages the party has there, there really is no other option.
Said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Barb Solish: “This district will always be competitive and Democrats will continue to fight so that the families here get the representation they deserve.”