The San Joaquin Valley is California's hottest political spot

When it comes to competitive political races, nowhere in California beats the San Joaquin Valley -- at least at the state and federal levels.

Heading into November, this part of the state has two congressional races and a state Senate race that are considered competitive. Three other seats in Congress, the state Senate and the state Assembly could be at play -- if not this year, then likely in the future.

Political experts say the region between Modesto and Bakersfield -- centered on Fresno -- is one of the few parts of California where Republicans can still challenge Democratic Party supremacy.

"The Republican Party in California is no longer a statewide party," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections. "It's a regional party. And you're in one of the regions."

Only the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties can come close to the San Joaquin Valley when it comes to competitive races, political experts said.

This year, the region's competitive races are the 21st Congressional District clash between incumbent Hanford Republican David Valadao and his Democratic Party challenger, Amanda Renteria, the 10th Congressional District race pitting incumbent Turlock Republican Jeff Denham against Democrat Michael Eggman and the 14th State Senate race with incumbent Hanford Republican Andy Vidak and Democrat opponent Luis Chavez.

Each of the seats is held by a Republican, but in the case of Valadao's 21st Congressional and Vidak's 14th state Senate seat, Democrats dominate in voter registration. In Denham's district, Republicans hold a slight edge, though registration for both parties is below 40%.

Add in Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who is the Republican candidate for state controller, and the greater San Joaquin Valley is certain to see plenty of politicking, whether it's by campaign mailers, television or radio commercials or town hall appearances.

Buying media -- be it television or radio ads -- is also cheaper in the San Joaquin Valley than in places such as Los Angeles and Orange counties. That gives both parties a fighting chance to be competitive, said Tim Clark, a Sacramento-based political consultant who is running Swearengin's campaign.

"The media markets in Fresno and Bakersfield make it easy to have a conversation about politics," he said.

That conversation is likely to start in earnest after Labor Day on Monday, the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign season.

The Young Guns Network, a national Republican group, has booked $235,000 in ads in the Fresno and Bakersfield markets before Election Day -- almost certainly aimed at the Valadao-Renteria contest.

In the meantime, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's ad buy is from mid-October through Election Day and totals around $550,000 for the Fresno and Bakersfield media markets.

At the same time, Valadao has raised $1.8 million and has $1.2 million cash on hand, and Renteria has raised $1 million and has $400,000 in the bank, according to their latest campaign finance reports.

Valadao's campaign has also purchased more than $200,000 in television ads in both the Fresno and Bakersfield markets, and that is just for the period from Sept. 9-29.

Renteria is expected to go on television soon.

"The action is in the Central Valley because that is the area that is truly a two-party area," said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and former Republican legislative aide.

Other races could be competitive at some point, but might not be this year.

They are the 16th Congressional District seat held by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, the 12th state Senate seat represented by Ceres Republican Anthony Cannella, and the 32nd Assembly District held by Bakersfield Democrat Rudy Salas.

The political territory held by Cannella and Salas has been competitive for well over a decade, and during that time has been held by both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, Valadao preceded Salas in the Assembly seat, though it was then known as the 30th District. Before Valadao, it was another Republican, Danny Gilmore, and prior to him, Democrat Nicole Parra.

Costa's district -- parts of Fresno and Madera counties and all of Merced County -- covers areas long held by moderate Democrats, but one nonpartisan political prognosticator says the district is marginally competitive this year.

It all comes down to candidates and money, political experts said. And this year, the challengers in each of the three districts are lacking in money or are not considered to be top-tier candidates.

In the 32nd Assembly District race, for instance, Delano Republican Pedro Rios gave Salas a good fight two years ago. Salas won 53%-47%.

This time around, Rios' campaign is close to broke. It was in the red as of June 30, and late contributions have only managed to bring Rios to around the break-even point. Salas, in the meantime, had more than $630,000 in his campaign account as of June 30, and has been steadily raising money since then.

It's a similar story on the 12th Senate District, which includes the western quarter of Fresno County, all of Merced County and other parts of the northern San Joaquin Valley as well as all of San Benito County and half of Monterey County.

Cannella is being challenged by Democrat Shawn Bagley, who only has around $30,000 in his account -- including $25,000 from the state Democratic Party -- while Cannella has more than $930,000.

Hoffenblum, the Republican strategist, said the district could be competitive if Bagley was better financed, but for now is only being watched because Democrats hold a voter-registration edge of 13 percentage points.

Finally, there is Costa's 16th Congressional District. Again, money is a major issue. Republican challenger Johnny Tacherra's campaign is nearly broke at this point, while Costa has around $760,000.

Without adequate cash, experts say, it is hard for challengers like Tacherra to get their name and message to voters, especially in a district like Costa's, where Democrats hold a nearly 16-percentage-point registration edge.

Under the right circumstances, any of those three districts could be competitive, political experts said. Add those to the three that are competitive this election cycle, and that's why the region is the epicenter of competitive California politics.

"The Central Valley from Modesto down to Bakersfield, it has ebbed and flowed for two decades," Clark said, citing swings in both voter registration and which political party has held a particular seat.

Every Republican knows you have to win big here, he said, and every Democrat knows that if you can beat the Republican Party here, you can win statewide.

Said Clark: "The San Joaquin Valley remains the electoral hot spot in the state."


Oct. 6: Vote-by-mail ballots and sample ballots mailed to voters.

Oct. 20: Last day to register to vote.

Oct. 28: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail.

Nov. 4: General Election Day.


Fresno County: 2221 Kern St., Fresno; details:  or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)

Tulare County: 5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia; details: or (559) 624-7300

Kings County: 1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford; details: or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401

Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera; details: or (559) 675-7720

Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced; details:  or (209) 385-7541

Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa; details:  or (209) 966-2007