The race for California’s 21st Congressional District got a little more interesting over the weekend, as Kern County election results propelled Democrat TJ Cox to within two percentage points of incumbent David Valadao.
The update is encouraging to Cox’s campaign, which has not conceded despite the media, elections forecasters and Valadao himself calling the race in the Hanford Republican’s favor on election night. It also piqued some national interest, as Democrats look to increase their domination over the state’s close House races.
Over the weekend, Cox closed with 2,000 votes – just 1.4 percentage points – behind Valadao. Cox was behind about eight points on election night.
Overall, Cox has 41,435 votes to Valadao’s 43,504.
The jolt came by way of a Sunday update from Kern County, where Cox has 20,155 votes to Valadao’s 13,696.
Tracking the district
The 21st District cuts an interesting swath through Kern County, moving south through Delano and McFarland before curling around Bakersfield, catching the southern part of the city.
All of those pieces of the district lean heavily to the Left. Cox campaigned hard in those areas, which trace deep Democratic roots back to the founding of the United Farm Workers of America in the 1960s and beyond.
On Tuesday, the Kern County elections department told The Bee it had 22,072 mail-in and provisional ballots left to count.
Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties will update their results yet this week.
Valadao holds a 2,000-vote lead in Fresno County, a 200-vote lead in Tulare County and a 6,400-vote lead in his home county of Kings.
Fresno County could be the key in deciding the race. It still has 77,000 ballots to count, though it’s unclear just how many of those are within the 21st. The next county update will be released Wednesday.
The district includes Kerman, Mendota and surrounding areas in western Fresno County, as well as Parlier, Sanger, Reedley and most of southern Fresno County. Like most Valley areas, the cities would appear to favor a Democrat, but the large rural and unincorporated areas are heavily Republican.
The exception is Fresno County’s west side, as even the more rural areas near Mendota lean to the Left.
Fresno State political science professor Lisa Bryant said she believes Kern – and likely not Fresno – will decide whether Cox can make up the necessary ground.
Although the majority of the district’s outstanding ballots are likely in Fresno, Bryant said the trends are showing Valadao receiving 42 percent of absentee ballots to Cox’s 41 percent. She expected those trends to hold, meaning Valadao’s lead will only grow slightly from Fresno’s remaining returns.
Bryant estimated about 20 percent of Fresno County’s 77,000 outstanding ballots are in the 21st, meaning there are about 15,400 uncounted ballots.
Bryant noted that Fresno is not following statewide trends that have flipped or nearly flipped Republican districts in Southern California. In those districts, late-arriving absentee ballots have trended Democrat. In Fresno, the numbers are holding even between the two parties.
Valadao is likely to continue his dominance of Kings County, where he is pulling in two-thirds of the vote, Bryant said.
While the city of Hanford is somewhat Democratic, it is also Valadao’s lifelong home and one of his major support bases. To the west, Lemoore – a Navy town – is among the most Republican-leaning cities in the entire Valley.
All of Kings County is in the 21st, meaning all of the 7,800 remaining ballots will influence the race. Republicans have a plus-eight registration lead in Kings.
Only a small portion of Tulare County’s population resides in the 21st, which includes the towns of Tipton and Woodville. The county has about 50,000 ballots left to count, but it is not known how many of these are within the district.
With a wash in Fresno and Tulare counties and likely gains coming for Valadao in Kings County, Cox will likely need to continue his significant gains in Kern County, Bryant said.
“Like many others, I thought this was a no-brainer for Valadao,” Bryant said. “I would still bet on him, but it’s been an interesting year. Absentees are deciding elections all over the country.”
Valadao’s campaign told The Bee in a statement Monday that the change was not surprising.
“With only Kern County submitting updated results, this change was expected as the vast majority of uncounted ballots are from Fresno, Kings, and Tulare counties,” campaign spokesman Cole Rojewski said. “Statistically, David Valadao has won this race.”
Cox campaign spokesman Phillip Vander Klay issued a statement similar to one Cox sent out on election night: “We’ve always felt it was important to make sure that every vote gets counted and every voter has a chance to make their voice heard. From the beginning, we knew this was going to be a close race, and we are looking forward to seeing the rest of the results.”