More than 100,000 absentee ballots have been cast in the central San Joaquin Valley’s three congressional districts as of Friday, giving an early glimpse into what’s expected to be the most competitive batch of races the area has seen in years.
According to Political Data Inc., Republicans and older voters are turning in their mail-in ballots at a higher rate than Democrats and younger voters in these areas. This is typical of Valley early voting, and Democratic challengers Andrew Janz and TJ Cox are focusing most of their energy into getting out the vote – particularly among young people and Latinos – in hopes of overcoming what will likely be sizable deficits in the online results update on election night.
Two key voter bases for Valley Democrats – those under 34 and Latinos – appear to be outperforming state averages at this early juncture, but the electorate remains disproportionately older and whiter than population and registration figures would indicate.
Overall, it appears the three incumbents – Democrat Jim Costa and Republicans David Valadao and Devin Nunes – are in a comfortable spot going in Tuesday’s election.
The Valley’s highest-profile race – and one of the country’s largest in terms of spending – pits Nunes against Janz. The two have dominated a dozen or more media cycles in the last year and spent more than $17 million tearing into each other at every turn.
Janz, a 34-year-old Fresno prosecutor and first-time candidate, has benefited greatly from Nunes’ polarizing national rise. The Tulare congressman is President Donald Trump’s greatest ally in Congress, and has darted in and out of several key investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
As Janz turned traditional and social media exposure into fundraising millions, Nunes declared all-out war on those platforms and used his own forms of communication to rally Republicans across the country into shelling out still more millions into his campaign.
So far, the high turnouts among white, Republican and older voting groups has played right into Nunes’ hands.
Of the 224,227 ballots mailed out in the district, which includes Clovis, Tulare and Visalia, 62,080 had been returned as of Friday. Nearly half of the returned ballots (30,668) belong to a Republican.
The early results do not indicate who a person voted for – only the party designation and voter demographic information of the ballot itself. It’s possible that a Republican ballot could include a vote for Janz or no one at all, and the same is true for Democratic ballots and Nunes.
About 33 percent of those ballots returned came from Democrats, while the remainder came from no-party preference or third-party voters.
This means that if every Republican ballot selected Nunes, Janz would need every Democrat and third-party vote just to hold a slim lead.
According to the California Secretary of State’s office, the district’s current party registration is 40 percent Republican and 32 percent Democrat.
More than 33 percent of the Republicans who received absentee ballots have turned theirs in, compared to 28 percent of Democrats and about 19 percent of third-party voters.
Although 27 percent of the ballots mailed out were sent to 18- to 34-year-olds, that demographic accounts for just 10 percent of the ballots returned. This is right in line with the current state average.
About 30 percent of the early voters are Latino, but the group accounts for only 18 percent of the submitted ballots so far.
In the June primary, Janz received 32 percent of the vote to Nunes’ 58. Two other Democrats accounted for about 8 percent, meaning Democrats outperformed their registration total in gaining 40 percent of the vote.
The Democrats hope to increase turnout within the party from primary to general, but election forecasters and every poll conducted predict a Nunes victory.
The Cook Political Report only recently placed the race on its radar, rating it “Likely Republican.” CNN predicts Nunes will win by 11 points with the slight chance of Janz winning by two, while FiveThirtyEight gives Nunes a 95 percent chance of victory.
The Democrats are once again pushing hard to flip Valadao’s seat. This year, Fresno engineer TJ Cox was a late entry into the race after switching out of the crowded 10th District contest against Rep. Jeff Denham.
The 21st District, which stretches through Kings, Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Trump by 16 points in the 2016 presidential election. Republicans account for just 27 percent of the electorate – a full 16 points behind Democrats and just two points above no-party preference voters (25 percent).
Despite this, early returns show a near statistical tie between Democratic and Republican ballots as of Friday.
Democrats account for 14,984, or about 41 percent, of the ballots compared to 14,279 (39 percent) Republican. There are currently more third-party and no-party preference ballots out than Republican ballots, but only 7,030 of those have been returned.
The seemingly close figures likely favor Valadao, who has proven himself capable of doubling his party registration percentage on election day. The Hanford dairyman trounced Cox in the primary by more than 25 points.
Unlike the rest of the state, the district has shown a sharp increase in youth voter turnout. This could be due to progressive groups like Tom Steyer’s NextGen America spending over a year on the ground at colleges and high schools attempting to push young people into the process.
About 16 percent of the 36,293 collected ballots have come from voters aged 18-34. The state average is currently 10 percent.
The Latino results are more mixed.
Of the 156,144 ballots sent out to voters, 56 percent went to Latinos and 38 percent went to white voters. However, there are currently 5,000 more white ballots submitted than Latino – 54 percent to 40 percent.
But more Latinos are submitting their ballots (17 percent) than the current statewide average (14 percent).
The two candidates have received considerable backing from their parties, as they shared drastically different views on the nation’s key issues: health care, immigration, the economy and others. Cox has sought to attack Valadao’s pro-Trump record, while Valadao has defended his voting decisions – some of which have bucked his own party – as a hyper-local representative.
FiveThirtyEight gives Cox a 20 percent chance to win, while CNN predicts a six-point Valadao win with a slight chance of a six-point Cox victory. Cook Political Report has kept the race at a “Likely Republican” rating since the primary. It was previously set to “Lean Republican.”
Longtime incumbent Costa faces a first-time Republican candidate in Elizabeth Heng.
Although the fundraising, voter registration, experience and forecast numbers all tilt toward Costa, he has struggled in the previous two off-year elections against relatively unknown challengers.
Heng has some buzz behind her, gaining some national exposure for clashes with social media providers, and has raised more than $1 million.
But Costa appears to be a clear favorite, and early returns back that up.
The 16th is the only local district in which Democrats have submitted ballots in line with their party registration percentage.
Of the 183,195 voters who were sent ballots, 83,177 (45 percent) of them were Democrats. And of the 41,346 ballots returned, 18,524 (45 percent) came from Democrats.
Republican ballots account for 25 percent (46,182) of those mailed out and 35 percent (14,587) of the returned ballots.
The latest voter registration figures for the district are 44 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican and 31 percent no-party preference.
More than one-third of the voters in the 16th District are under 34, but they account for just 13 percent of the ballots returned.
White absentee voters outnumber Latino voters by just 4,000, or 46 percent to 44 percent. But white ballots more than double the Latino ballots returned (24,991 to 12,451).
Heng was just six points behind Costa in the primary, but FiveThirtyEight gives her just a 1.8 percent chance of winning the general. CNN predicts a 24-point Costa victory, and Cook has kept the seat rated as “Safe Democratic” for the entire election cycle.