As the fog cleared on the central San Joaquin Valley political landscape post-election, the results in three congressional races – the 16th, 21st and 22nd districts – were finite enough for the local parties to begin reflecting on 18 months of hard-fought campaigning and plotting a course forward.
Thousands of votes are yet to be counted, but incumbents Jim Costa, David Valadao and Devin Nunes held large-enough margins to call the races in their favor.
Costa defeated Republican Elizabeth Heng in the 16th by about eight percentage points, about the same margin Valadao held against Democrat TJ Cox in the 21st.
And in a race that gained unprecedented national exposure and support, Nunes beat Democratic challenge Andrew Janz by about 12 points.
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The Valley’s delegation may have stayed the same, but the House’s Democratic flip raises questions: Will Valadao find the success on immigration that his own party denied him last summer? What will Costa’s role be under Democratic House leadership?
And what will happen to Nunes, who will lose the key chairmanship that thrust him fully into the national spotlight? Could the prospect of a diminished role in the minority, coupled with the fluctuation of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, lure him to a White House job?
The Bee asked several local political experts to weigh in on these questions and the unsuccessful attempts to dislodge Valley incumbents.
Fresno Republican Women spokeswoman Diane Pearce summed up the volatile 22nd District race quite simply: “This is Nunes country.”
“We recognize the truth of what he’s working on in Washington,” she elaborated. “They tried to say he’d forgotten about the Valley, but those who pay attention know exactly what he’s doing and who he is.”
Nunes emerged from a contest in which spending may eclipse the $20 million mark, once final tallies are made. The outgoing chair on the House Intelligence Committee rose to prominence for his handling of several key investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and close ties to Trump.
The anger directed at Nunes led to millions of dollars and unprecedented national exposure for Janz, a 34-year-old, first-time candidate. He capitalized with a grassroots effort featuring a young, capable campaign that quickly mobilized hundreds of volunteers and cultivated media coverage over a staggering 19-month period.
Some across the country believed Janz stood a chance at dislodging a senior congressman from a Republican-majority district he has held since its creation in 2002, but local conservatives were unshaken.
“Millions of dollars flooded into that race, and he couldn’t get within 10 points,” Pearce said. “Nobody bought what Janz was selling.”
Michael Evans, president of the Fresno County Democrats, said Janz did just about everything he could to win election.
“It wasn’t for a lack of effort,” Evans said.
Evans said it was incumbent on not only Janz but other local Democrats to find a way to reach out and grab conservative voters in Republican districts such as the 22nd. As the national party turns its eyes toward the White House in 2020, Evans and other local party leaders will hold a debriefing and strategy session in the coming weeks to formulate a battle plan for entrenched areas of Trump support.
Michael Der Manouel Jr., a local Republican commentator and former treasurer of the state GOP, agreed with Evans’ assessment of Janz’s work ethic.
“Janz’s campaign did everything they could – the ground game, the volunteers, more money than you can ever spend times two,” Der Manouel said. “They didn’t run a bad campaign, but it wasn’t close.”
Der Manouel said he was shown internal polling from both Nunes’ and Valadao’s campaigns in April, and the margins in those polls were pretty much the same as the margins on election night.
“All that spending, the organizing, the back-and-forth – it meant nothing,” he said. “I was surprised at the amount of national rage that converted itself into money for Janz, but it was all wasted.”
At their election night party, Janz and his staff stressed the campaign had in fact made progress and “shown the Central Valley what democracy looks like.”
Fresno State political science professor Thomas Holyoke joined the chorus of those unable to find major fault in Janz’s campaign.
Holyoke pointed to the district’s staunch support of Trump and Nunes’ seniority, which he said brings almost limitless resources. Nunes’ campaign raised more than $10 million as of mid-October.
He added that constituent frustration over not seeing Nunes, who has not participated in a truly public town hall meeting since 2010, must not have resonated with the entire district.
Holyoke said national Democrats believed that Nunes almost flaunted his obstruction of an investigation into the president and wanted to unseat him. As such, the best fundraiser for Janz was clearly Nunes himself.
Nunes’ future appears clouded. He will no longer be the House Intelligence chair, likely giving way to his public nemesis, Southern California Democrat Adam Schiff.
Schiff has hinted at relaunching investigations into the president, but it’s unclear if he will seek to bloody Nunes in the process.
The local Republican experts were confident Nunes can still help lead the party on a national stage from the minority, with Der Manouel saying that Republicans are actually “stronger, bolder and more aggressive” in that position.
But the conventional wisdom is that Nunes will struggle to accomplish much legislatively – particularly now that he is among the nation’s most partisan congressional members – in the next few years.
Holyoke offered an interesting theory when asked if Nunes may seek a cabinet position instead of battling a majority.
He mused that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, reportedly mired in an ethics investigation and under scrutiny from the president, may be on his way out – and that Nunes could be considered as a successor.
“What if he were offered that? Or Bureau of Reclamation, should that become available?” Holyoke said. “I would have to believe, and I am only speculating, that he would be tempted.”
Nunes entered public service as a 23-year-old in part to solve water issues, so cabinet positions with oversight in those areas would seem to be attractive.
It should be noted, however, that Nunes told The Bee in February that he had his pick of several cabinet positions when he served on the president’s transitional team but had no interest in leaving Congress.
But February was a long time ago, politically speaking, and speculation will likely continue to circulate on whether Nunes will switch government branches.
The experts agreed that Valadao proved nigh untouchable once more.
This time, the Hanford dairyman’s campaign may have effectively painted Cox, who lives in Fresno and entered the race in March after originally declaring in the 10th, as an outsider.
Evans, with the Fresno Democrats, said he expected Cox to finish a bit closer to Valadao.
“We felt the energy in this cycle would lead to an upsurge in Latino voters, but we’re yet to see if that happened,” Evans said. “Cox got into the race late, and maybe he wasn’t able to connect effectively.”
Pearce, with the Fresno Republican Women, said Valadao has shown he’s been a good representative for the people even though the district leans Democrat by a staggering 16 percent.
“He is an ag guy from that area, not elitist at all, speaks their language (figuratively and literally, as Valadao speaks both Spanish and Portuguese in the predominantly Latino district), and his problems are their problems,” Pearce said.
Pearce also ripped Cox, pointing to his “outsider” status. Cox also claimed a home in Maryland as his principal residence.
“The quality of the candidate really matters, and I don’t think TJ was anywhere close to the caliber of candidate needed,” she said.
Cox and his campaign did their best to deflect the issue, pushing hard on Valadao’s alleged ties with Trump.
But Holyoke, with Fresno State, believes Valadao has been successful in portraying himself as someone who doesn’t play party games.
“He doesn’t really get into the partisan squabbling that Nunes embraces,” Holyoke said. “He works with everyone. People like him..”
He continued: “There’s a big appeal. He’s a long-time farmer, and he can tell voters, ‘I’m not going to D.C. to get rich. I’m actually nearly broke.’ And people identify with that.”
Holyoke said Democrats have failed to find a young, identifiable, savvy candidate from within the 21st.
Moving forward, immigration figures to be an ongoing issue for Valadao. Over the summer, he and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, tried unsuccessfully to bring a moderate immigration bill with bipartisan support to the House floor.
Although a new party is in power, the local experts believe major issues such as immigration are likely to face some gridlock until 2020.
“The window of opportunity on immigration reform has closed,” Holyoke said. He noted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown little interest in addressing the issue, while Trump seeks to use it as fuel for re-election.
“Immigration has shown to be a potent and polarizing issue for the Republican base, and Trump doesn’t want to jeopardize that,” Holyoke said. “And without the Senate or the president, there’s not one thing the House can do.”
The Valley’s best hope for getting something done on a national level may now rest with Costa, Holyoke said, though the moderate Costa is not known for his close ties with likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Although Costa will be up for leadership roles on several subcommittees, the Valley’s delegation clearly took a power hit when the House flipped. It wasn’t just Nunes who will be affected, as his congressional neighbor and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was almost certainly on his way to becoming speaker.
But power struggles in Washington have never much been Costa’s thing. He typically likes to bring his victories home to the Valley, where he works tirelessly to secure funding and broker deals at the federal, state and local levels.
Both Holyoke and Evans praised Costa’s foresight in identifying Heng as a viable candidate early and working harder than he had in previous midterm elections to defeat her.
“He took this one seriously,” Holyoke said. “In 2014, it was down to the wire. But this time he did not take anything for granted and put up a vigorous defense.”
Heng checked a lot of boxes for what both parties look for in a new candidate. She’s a young woman with an Ivy League education and Congressional staffing experience.
She has a great story. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia to escape genocide.
There are some parallels between her candidacy and that of Democrat Amanda Renteria, who checked similar boxes in 2014 but also was unable to knock off an incumbent in David Valadao.
Like Cox, Heng struggled with the incumbent’s efforts to show her as an outsider. Coincidentally, Heng also kept a principal residence in Washington, D.C.
“Costa and Valadao both spend a lot of time in their district,” Holyoke said. “This builds relationships and connections. And someone from outside the area can just never do this. They just don’t have the connections.”
But both Pearce and Der Manouel said Heng posted a good showing in the predominantly Democratic district, and both believed she could have a bright future in public service ahead of her if she chooses to stick around in Fresno.
“She’s a nice candidate,” Der Manouel said. “I hope she stays engaged and considers public service. But there are just certain races in the Valley where if you have an ‘R’ next to your name, you’re done. And that’s one of them.”