Local Election

Devin Nunes, TJ Cox are top targets in 2020 – but they still don’t have challengers

Democrats and Republicans have made it clear where the congressional battlegrounds are in California for 2020, and nearly all nine contested seats have multiple declared challengers trying to unseat incumbents.

Just two targeted districts — the ones held by Reps. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, and Devin Nunes, R-Tulare — still don’t have a single public challenger.

It may feel like the 2018 midterm election just ended, but a late start for 2020 could make it difficult for the opposing party to unseat either congressman, especially during a presidential election year when voters’ attention and political fundraising dollars will be fixed at the top of the ticket.

Nunes has already built up a $1.2 million campaign war chest, according to Federal Election Commission records. Cox raised about $300,000 in the first quarter — also no small feat.

Early fundraising in these races is important in California because advertising can be expensive. Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at UC San Diego, said not having declared at this point might not be problematic — yet.

“There will be more competition for more money, but holding on to Congress is still going to be a priority,” said Kousser. “And there’s a lot of rich Democrats in California.”

Both districts have some rumors floating about on potential candidates, though no one has filed.

Two Democrats who ran against Nunes last year, such as Andrew Janz and Ricardo “Rico” Franco, have said they are not challenging him again. Janz, a county prosecutor, plans to run for Fresno mayor.

But Will Schlitz, a Centaur North political strategist for Bobby Bliatout, the founder of a nonprofit health care organization who came in third in the last primary behind Nunes and Janz, would not rule out another run.

“Yes, there are no publicly announced candidates yet,” Schlitz told McClatchy, with a heavy emphasis on publicly.

In Cox’s district, many wonder if former Republican Rep. David Valadao plans to enter the race. Cox narrowly defeated Valadao last year.

A former spokeswoman for Valadao did not return multiple requests for comment from McClatchy, and the NRCC would not confirm or deny rumors that Valadao had been in Washington, D.C. in the past week.

“I would guess that everyone is waiting to hear if Valadao will get in,” Kousser said. “No one wants to announce and then have him get in and cut your chances.”

Both parties have made it clear the districts are targets.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in January listed Nunes as one of its top targets in 2020, with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, the only other Californian listed. Hunter already has five challengers, two of them Democrats.

“As the 2018 Midterm elections showed in CA-22, Congressman Nunes is vulnerable and Democrats will not give him a pass in 2020 as he puts Trump’s misplaced priorities over the needs of his district,” said Andy Orellana, spokesman for the DCCC.

Torunn Sinclair, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said they are “confident in (Nunes’) reelection prospects.” Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

The NRCC has said it is trying to take back every single one of the seven California districts that flipped to Democrats in 2018. Six of those have at least two challengers, with one having as many as six.

But not Cox, who won by the narrowest margin in 2018 and didn’t know for sure if he had won until months after the election. The NRCC has been repeatedly sending out alerts on reporting on Cox’s past business practices and his taking money from business political action committees.

“While it must feel longer for a scandal-plagued Congressman like TJ Cox, it’s still relatively early in the election cycle,” the NRCC’s Sinclair said. “Perhaps while TJ awaits his GOP challenger he can pay his delinquent taxes, fix his financial disclosure report and divest from his shady business interests.”

The DCCC and Cox’s office both said they are not taking the election for granted, even without a challenger announced yet. Both Orellana and Francois Genard, Cox’s chief of staff, pointed to Cox’s hundreds of event appearances and work for agriculture and water rights.

“In 2018, TJ Cox won the last race called in the country by a margin less than 900 votes,” Genard said. “We are taking our challenge in 2020 seriously, which is why Congressman Cox and his team have appeared at more than 200 events in the district and is fighting in Washington for new markets for our farmers and ranchers, funding for water infrastructure and storage, and working to provide affordable healthcare for every working family in the Central Valley.”

Cox personally got into the 21st congressional district race late in the 2018 cycle, but he had been fundraising while running in the crowded 10th congressional district field.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited reporting that Rep. TJ Cox took donations from corporate PACs. He has actually taken money from business PACs, which have ties to businesses but are not considered the same as corporate PACs.

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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.