Local Election

Republican mayor may challenge Costa for congressional seat as an independent, he says

A new challenger may soon enter the race against longtime central San Joaquin Valley elected official Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

In the seat since 2005, Costa is already facing multiple challengers, including Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria. Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said he is considering throwing his hat in the ring, saying polling has shown potentially positive results.

A registered Republican, the 40-year-old Murphy said he’s looking at running as an independent.

“If I run it would be as a no-party preference independent and really focusing on areas we can find nonpartisan support on national issues,” he said on Monday.

“There are certainly things about the Republican Party that I don’t agree with, but that’s true for many people in America today that are disaffected in the Democratic and Republican parties,” he said.

More than 30% of voters in District 16 are registered as something other than Democratic or Republican with the overwhelming majority registered as no-party preference, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Murphy’s record

Murphy is in his second term as mayor of Merced, where he served as a councilmember before that. He co-owns a business law firm in town.

He said he’s seen success while in office. The mayor has come to commonly use the phrase “Merced: A city on the rise” while touting a revitalization of the city’s downtown and growing relationship with UC Merced.

Downtown Merced’s El Capitan Hotel and Mainzer Theater are undergoing multimillion-dollar upgrades from the same developer. The historic Hotel Tioga also is being renovated. Spurring further growth in downtown, UC Merced built the Downtown Center, a 67,400-square-foot building capable of housing hundreds of employees.

“My name ID is mainly in Merced,” Murphy said. “I will have to introduce myself to voters outside of Merced just like anyone else.”

The 16th Congressional District encompasses all of Merced County and portions of Madera and Fresno counties.

Murphy said he hopes to make his decision this month. The deadline to enter the race is in December.

Costa responds

Costa said he’ll be reporting more than $570,000 in campaign contributions by Oct. 15, when voters “will know who the real candidates are in the race,” according to a statement on Tuesday. He also noted the support he’s gotten for re-election from Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other Democratic leaders and groups.

“We have our campaign in place and are moving full speed ahead,” he said. “I assure you that no one will ever work harder than me. I look forward to winning the March primary and winning again in November.”

Before his current congressional stint, Costa served from 1978-94 in the state Assembly and 1994-2002 in the state Senate.

Democratic challengers

During the weekend, the state Democratic Party voted on an endorsement for either Costa, Soria or Kimberly Williams, another Democratic challenger.

No candidate garnered more than 50% of the vote so the party so far has withheld its endorsement for that race, according to Michael Evans, Fresno County Democratic Party Central Committee chairperson.

Costa has received the committee’s endorsement in past elections.

Soria celebrated the vote on Twitter: “A historic victory as my incumbent opponent fails to secure the party endorsement.”

Kevin Cookingham, an educator retired from Clovis Unified, has said he’ll run as a Republican.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.