Political Notebook

David Valadao has a new challenger in 2018 congressional race

Democrat TJ Cox is running against Rep. David Valadao, a Hanford Republican, for the 21st Congressional District seat.
Democrat TJ Cox is running against Rep. David Valadao, a Hanford Republican, for the 21st Congressional District seat.

With only a few days left before the campaign filing deadline, Fresno businessman TJ Cox announced Tuesday he will challenge Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, for his seat in Congress.

Cox, a Democrat who had moved to Modesto to challenge Turlock Republican Jeff Denham in the 10th District, will move back to Fresno to campaign against Valadao in the 21st District. Rumors of Cox's campaign switch began to leak out over the weekend.

The new challenger fills the void left by Bakersfield attorney Emilio Huerta, who dropped out of the race over the weekend. Huerta lost to Valadao in 2016 by a double-digit margin.

In an interview Tuesday, Cox said he had stayed out of the race until this point out of deference to Huerta and his family. Once Huerta dropped out, Cox opted to run in the 21st, a district in which he does not live but does a lot of business in.

This will be Valadao's fourth election in the battleground district in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 17 percentage points – a difference of about 40,000 voters. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also soundly beat President Donald Trump in the district, 55 percent to 40 percent.

Despite this demographic hurdle, Valadao has repelled all challengers, with Huerta coming the closest (13 points) in the past three elections.

The two sides wasted little time in firing opening salvos Tuesday, with Valadao questioning Cox's selection and the Republicans' congressional committee blasting him as a failed candidate, while Cox attacked Valadao's voting record.

"While my team and I were working in the neighborhoods that Wall Street wouldn’t touch, David Valadao and his Washington friends were fighting to slash taxes for the richest corporations and rip away health care from thousands of Central Valley families," Cox said.

Cox also referenced Valadao's "Trump score" – a reference to FiveThirtyEight's tracking of how Congress members vote in accordance to President Donald Trump's public position. According to this metric, Valadao votes with Trump 98.5 percent of the time. Four House representatives have 100 percent scores, while a few dozen are tied at 98.5.

Cox claims Valadao ignored the needs of his constituents to side with the president.

Valadao, meanwhile, accused the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) of pushing out Huerta, a resident of the 21st, in favor of a "Washington insider" in Cox.

"Obviously the DCCC doesn’t think too highly of any of the residents of California's 21st Congressional District," campaign manager Cole Rojewski said. "Instead, they have decided Washington insiders know best, coercing ​out ​locals and running their own handpicked candidate."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to comment for this story.

Jack Pandol, western region spokesman for the National Republic Congressional Committee, called Valadao "a special candidate" given his ability to connect with voters.

"David Valadao's strength and connection to the community through his work on water and immigration issues all point to him being a very formidable candidate," Pandol said. "It's a tough district for a Republican, but he and his campaign work very, very hard."

The district is a perennial target for the Democrats, Pandol said, but they've yet to find a true challenge for Valadao.

"They've had to beg someone from another district to run, and TJ Cox is no stellar candidate," he said. "He's failed multiple times, and he's district-shopped all over the state for a new race."

In 2006, incumbent Republican George Radanovich soundly defeated Cox in the 19th District.

Cox, an engineer by trade, is the president of the Central Valley NMTC Fund, a community development entity that awards federal new market tax credits to small businesses and nonprofits in economically disadvantaged communities. He also owns several businesses, including an almond processing plant and senior residence homes.

It's unclear whether anyone else will enter the race before the Friday filing deadline.

Rep. David Valadao

Valadao holds a significant fundraising advantage early on. He ended 2017 with a little less than $1 million on hand, while Cox had about $280,000. The incumbent has shown some fundraising prowess, bringing in about $2.7 million in each of the previous two elections.

Many of the country's most pressing issues – healthcare, tax reform, immigration – run directly through the 21st District.

It is among the most impoverished congressional districts in the country, with about 27 percent of its residents living below the poverty line.

More than 68,000 people in the district do not have health insurance, and nearly 385,000 – more than half its total population – receive their medical care through public assistance.

Around 200,000 people living in the 21st were born in another country. It houses many of the farmers and undocumented farm workers at the heart of the debate over whether Congress should cap the number of agricultural work visas given out – a problem that may kill the House's proposed immigration bill.

Valadao was one of the first Republicans to support the Democrats' most recent attempt at a DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. He was one of the last Republicans to throw his support behind a controversial healthcare bill, which ultimately was defeated in the Senate.

Cox said Tuesday that Valadao's support of healthcare and tax bills that will further hurt large portions of the district, as well as his inaction on immigration, will sway voters into supporting his campaign.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics