Local Election

As primary dust settles, local Congressional candidates plot course to November

Andrew Janz at headquarters on election day

Andrew Janz and staff making calls from campaign headquarters on election day
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Andrew Janz and staff making calls from campaign headquarters on election day

Three central San Joaquin Valley congressional races, each with its own unique set of twists and turns, appear to have taken shape – giving voters a clear idea of their options for representation in Washington, D.C.

Unofficial results from Tuesday’s state primary election show that Democrat Andrew Janz, a prosecutor, has pushed through in a crowded race to replace the much talked-about Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, in California’s 22nd District.

The players in two other local races, Fresno Democrat Jim Costa’s 16th District and Hanford Republican David Valadao's, were chiseled in stone before Tuesday’s election, as each seat drew one challenger in California’s top-two primary system.

However, the election night margins in these two contests lend some intrigue to the coming months.

Costa, a 14-year congressional veteran in a district that leans Democrat, has traditionally struggled against Republican opponents in midterm election years.

Tuesday appears to have been no different. Newcomer Elizabeth Heng, a former staffer to Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, received 21,491 votes to Costa’s 24,139 – a margin of about six percentage points.

Should this narrow difference hold up – and it may not, given that around 40,000 absentee and 7,300 provisional ballots remained uncounted Wednesday morning in Fresno County alone – Heng could make things interesting in November.

The opposite scenario occurred in Valadao’s district, where the incumbent battered Fresno Democrat TJ Cox, a businessman and engineer. Valadao secured 20,509 votes to Cox’s 13,263 in a district that favored Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid by nearly 16 percentage points.

In statements made to The Bee in the hours following the election, combatants on both sides of the political spectrum blamed low turnout in off-year primaries and gleamed with optimism as they shared broad plans for the next five months.

22nd District

Rep. Devin Nunes and challenger Andrew Janz in file photos.

Janz/Nunes is the unquestioned main event in this year’s Valley contests.

Both have risen to great notoriety – Nunes for his controversial actions as head of the House Intelligence Committee, Janz for his unending barrage against those moves through dozens of media appearances.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Nunes had received 42,554 votes to Janz’s 23,555 – a margin of about 26 percentage points. Four other challengers split about 10 percent of the vote.

Nunes declined to comment for this story.

Janz held an election night party in northwest Fresno. As the excitement and blaring Miley Cyrus songs quieted, he said that his campaign seeks to raise “millions” in the months leading up the general election. Janz’s fundraising ability has surprised many, as he’s raised $2 million to seasoned moneymaker Nunes’ almost $6 million.

“My No. 1 priority is to make sure the voters are educated on the issues, and the only way (that happens) is if we have a fair and impartial debate on the issues,” Janz said. “A debate on my vision, a debate on Devin Nunes' vision, and if we have that debate, then the voters can make a more educated decision on who’s best suited to represent this district.”

When asked how he would get his message out given that Nunes will likely refuse any debate or public forum, as he has for more than a year, Janz said he would continue to speak directly to voters through everything from large events to house calls.

Janz, 34, will likely rely heavily on millennial voters. However, early returns showed that only 10 percent of voters 18-34 in his district actually sent in their ballots.

Ryan Wullschleger, the South Valley organizer for Janz's campaign, said his team will work to appeal to independent and young Republican voters who may not yet have the fierce party loyalty many older Republicans in the area seem to have.

Wullschleger has worked on previous Democratic attempts to dislodge Nunes, including Otto Lee's 2014 loss. He noted that unlike Lee, Janz's campaign has managed to pull in some Republican support.

He said he believes hammering Nunes on water and local issues will be more effective in turning potential Republicans than focusing on the more national topics that have led to the rise in both Nunes' and Janz's profiles: Russia, Trump and the Department of Justice.

Nunes thrust himself into the national spotlight in 2017 after a series of controversial acts, including a late-night trip to the White House to share information gleaned by the House Intelligence Committee with President Donald Trump. He is perhaps Trump's biggest ally in Congress and served on the president's transition team.

Critics have piled on Nunes over his involvement in a House investigation into whether Russia tampered with the 2016 general election – an investigation now handled by special counsel Robert Mueller.

21st District

Valadao has a hefty lead over yet another challenger brought in to oppose him in a seat heavily coveted by national Democrats.

Cox had previously planned to challenge Turlock Republican Jeff Denham, but switched races when Valadao’s 2016 challenger Emilio Huerta dropped out.

Several groups worked on Cox’s behalf to increase voter turnout, particularly among young voters, in the months prior to Tuesday’s election. They appear to have had some results, as the absentee 18-34 turnout was about 6 percent higher than the state average.

However, Cox’s late entry and the fact that he does not live in the 21st may have hurt him against Valadao, who has a reputation as a hard worker on local issues and is willing to cross party lines on some issues (immigration) – though not all (health care).

“I am incredibly humbled to have received the support and confidence of so many voters from California’s 21st District,” Valadao said in a statement. “As we head into November, we will continue focusing on the issues that impact our families most: creating jobs, strengthening the economy, and ensuring our children have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Cook Political Report moved its forecast in Valadao's favor from "Lean Republican" to "Likely Republican."

Cox said in an interview Wednesday he was not discouraged by the wide margin in Tuesday’s primary, adding that he’s only had limited time so far to get his message out.

That message, he said, is one of bringing jobs, federal dollars and healthcare access to the central San Joaquin Valley.

Cox, who also runs several agriculture businesses, started the Central Valley NMTC LLC in 2010. The corporation specializes in bringing new-market tax credits to Valley projects. This venture has created 1,500 jobs and brought more than $122 million to the 21st, according to Cox.

Cox also touted his engineering background as one that could help in the district’s fight for water.

“Of the two candidates, only one has actually built a dam,” he said.

16th District

Costa appears to have a midterm race on his hands against yet another relatively unknown Republican.

In 2014, many voters in the 16th District went to bed thinking Johnny Tacherra had pulled off a massive upset. Costa went on to win by just 1,300 votes – a little more than a percentage point.

In 2010, Costa beat Andy Vidak, now a state senator, by about 3,000 votes, or three percentage points.

In a statement Wednesday, Costa said he was pleased with results and expect the numbers only to get better in November.

Costa also recounted his recent accomplishments for the 16th, including securing more federal water for farmers and improving conditions at the Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

He also promised to keep working to provide better health care, create more jobs and secure more transportation money for his district.

“Listening and responding to our constituents and helping them solve problems is my job,” Costa said.

Heng, however, challenged Costa’s leadership and record in a statement made shortly after the first election results came in.

“From now until November we will continue to work every day to listen to the concerns of everyday people and bring the meaningful change to our valley that Jim Costa has failed to deliver in the 14 years he has been in Congress."

Heng is the daughter of refugees who fled to the U.S. during the Cambodian Civil War. She brings a small business owner background and several degrees from Stanford and Yale to the table, but she has no experience as an elected official.

Prior to serving in Congress, Costa spent 24 years in the California State Legislature.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics