Political Notebook

How did TJ Cox erase a 25-point primary loss to become the Valley’s next congressman?

When TJ Cox went to bed in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, he was nearly 5,000 votes behind Rep. David Valadao in the race for California’s 21st Congressional District.

Analysts and news media – including The Bee – declared Valadao the victor. The Hanford Republican was untouchable. The Democrats struck out again in their bid to capture a district that opposed President Donald Trump by 16 points in the 2016 election. If only, some said, they could find a strong candidate.

Cox wasn’t worried.

“I slept pretty well,” Cox said in an interview with The Bee Wednesday. “But the first thing on my mind (the next morning) was to call the election offices to see how many votes were left.”

With more than 43,000 outstanding ballots in the four-county district, Cox felt “cautiously optimistic” that the race was not over.

Exactly one month later, Cox is participating in a workshop for new members of Congress held at Harvard University. He’s taking selfies with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incoming congresswoman from New York. He’s hiring staff and opening offices in Selma and Bakersfield.

Valadao conceded Thursday, effectively wrapping a bow around the Democrats’ total victory in California – seven congressional seats targeted, seven flipped. The final margin of victory was just 862 votes – less than one percentage point.

The win erased a staggering 25 percent victory margin posted by Valadao in the June primary election.

Valadao has refused repeated interview requests since election night. His young campaign and district staff, normally quite active on social media, has gone almost silent since results began to turn toward Cox. The last tweet from Valadao’s official campaign Twitter claimed victory on election night.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has no official comment on the race, but its Democratic counterpart was happy to detail its version of the way “the Valley was won.”

Although relatively new tactics such as “ballot harvesting” – staff members legally picking up absentee ballots and turning them in for voters – were used, Democrats boiled the the key to victory down to a strategy as old as politics itself: outworking the opposition.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, left, has conceded to Fresno Democrat TJ Cox in the race for Valadao’s seat in California’s 21st Congressional District. Fresno Bee file

The election strategy

Cox was a late entry into the 21st. He dropped out of a crowded race for the 10th District – a contest in which Democrat Josh Harder eventually knocked off incumbent Republican Jeff Denham. The move came shortly after Emilio Huerta, who ran unsuccessfully in 2016, dropped out.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, had already been on the ground in the 21st for a year by the time Cox entered the picture.

Spokesman Drew Godinich explained that a field representative began work to discover key issues and mobilize support in the spring of 2017. Democrats opened offices in Hanford and Delano while bringing in more and more staff.

The first DCCC ads purchased in California were in the 21st, Godinich said.

In the weeks leading up to Cox’s switch, Democrats had seemed lukewarm on Huerta. It was generally believed he could not raise the amount of money needed to beat Valadao, whose seat is flanked by two high-ranking members – Rep. Devin Nunes and incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy – who typically have enough fundraising cash and clout to boost Valadao’s campaign efforts if needed.

Godinich said Cox became an attractive choice in part because he demonstrated his fundraising ability in his short time in the 10th District race. He also made the most sense geographically; although Cox does not live in the 21st, his Fresno home is pretty close to the district line.

But the most important factor, Godinich said, was Cox’s defensible record on health care.

Cox runs Central Valley NMTC, which specializes in applying for specialized federal tax credits for local businesses – especially those in low-income areas. He has helped build several health clinics in the district through this work.

Health care looms large

Valadao’s choice to support the Republican attempt to end the Affordable Care Act featured prominently throughout the campaign. He was among the last House Republicans to support the bill, which ultimately passed but was defeated in the Senate.

The congressman has said several times he ultimately supported the bill in order to give his constituents more cost-effective insurance options.

The Democrats seized on this, releasing study after study allegedly showing the Republican plan would have actually increased costs in the 21st, which is among the poorest districts in the United States.

“Health care was the drum beat for this entire election cycle, and TJ was uniquely positioned to deliver on health care through his background building health clinics in the Valley,” Godinich said.

Godinich said Valadao and Rep. Jeff Denham, the Turlock Republican whose seat the Democrats also targeted and flipped, showed their true colors by voting with their party to kill the Affordable Care Act.

“These navel-gazing Republican strategists failed to realize they voted for the tax plan and health care, despite their allegedly moderate brands,” Godinich said. “In (the 21st) District, 50 percent of people have Medi-Cal. The results would have been catastrophic.”

The Democrats attacked Valadao early and often.

The House Majority PAC, the Democrats’ main super PAC, launched an eight-week billboard and digital advertising campaign that blasted Valadao’s support for the Republican health care bill.

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The billboards, sprawled along Highway 180 near Mendota and Highway 99 near Pixley, read: “Congressman Valadao would leave 60,500 without health care coverage.”

Valadao billboard
Two billboards carrying this message aimed at Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, will be unveiled in Mendota and Kern County this week. House Majority PAC

The digital advertisements, aired in English and Spanish, also targeted Valadao on health care.

The ground game

Although health care was a key issue, it was only part of a strategy carried out by Cox’s campaign, the Democrats and a variety of third-party groups aiming to elevate a progressive candidate.

Turnout was key. Cox, the DCCC and their allies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to increase turnout.

NextGen America, a progressive nonprofit funded by Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, spent over a year attempting to engage young voters in the 21st. The group reportedly registered more than 2,000 young voters, knocked on 6,700 doors and sent more than 100,000 text messages.

NextGen America volunteer Kris Hall puts up a sign on the group’s booth on the first day of classes at Fresno State, Thursday morning, Aug. 23, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Steyer’s organization posted up on college campuses across the Valley, from Stanislaus State to California State University, Bakersfield. In addition to signing up new voters, the group collected thousands of pledges from already-registered young people and reminded them to vote through a variety of media.

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Red to Blue California, a PAC focused on flipping Republican seats, embraced Cox’s candidacy early on.

“We never gave up, and we invested spending over $175,000 in the district,” said Vince Rocha, the PAC’s executive director. “We knew that if we let the voters know that David Valadao did not share their values, they would support Cox.”

Like most of the others, the group concentrated its efforts on the younger and Latino voting groups.

This Cox collective of official and non-official campaign supporters claimed to have knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors.

Cox himself spent the final weeks of his campaign canvasing and hosting about 50 public events. His optimism rose as he began talking to voters, he said.

“I voted for you. My family voted for you. I am about to drop off my ballot for you,” Cox remembered hearing in the final days before the election.

The Democrats also collected ballots from likely Cox absentee voters and deposited them at polling places. This “harvesting” has been met with much national consternation from Republicans, but Godinich downplayed its national impact, saying the collected ballots accounted for “fewer than one percent of votes in a given election.”

“It’s no surprise that Denham and (Speaker) Paul Ryan don’t understand how elections work in California,” Godinich said.

Godinich explained that late votes – the same-day voters and same-week absentees – have always moved hard in Democrats’ favor. By increasing the number of late votes via the “harvesting,” which became legal in 2016, the Democrats ensured an even harder break in their favor.

Given that Cox’s race was won by less than one percent of the vote, the final push may have been the difference.

“It’s the testament to the ground game the Republicans had,” Godinich said. “If they had built the grassroots operations we had, they could have done this too. Because they did not make that investment in the field, they left votes behind.”

It’s not yet clear just how much of an impact these efforts made.

The 2018 general election turnout in the 21st was about 49 percent. That’s a marked increased over the 2014 midterms, when just 38 percent of voters elected Valadao over promising Democrat Amanda Renteria.

But voter turnout is up across the state over 2014, which was a record low. The 21st turnout in the 2016 presidential election was about 59 percent.

It’s clear, however, that Cox’s message resonated in Kern County – the only of the four counties that make up District 21 to choose him over Valadao. The district consists of all of Kings County, part of Fresno and Kern counties and a small chunk of Tulare County.

Cox captured just over 61 percent of the vote in Kern County.

huerta headshot
Democrat Emilio Huerta has decided not to run against Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, in 2018. Emilio Huerta for Congress

Huerta, a Bakersfield lawyer whose mother, Dolores, is a legendary activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers in nearby Delano, received about 56 percent of the Kern vote.

Renteria received about 54 percent of the Kern vote.

The nearly 9,000 votes Cox picked up in Kern County proved enough to counteract narrow margins of just over 500 votes in Fresno County and about 200 votes in Tulare County, as well as a larger margin in the Republican stronghold of Kings County (about 7,200).

Cox and his allies also hammered Valadao on immigration issues, attempting to tie Valadao to Trump’s family separation policy at the border.

The congressman seemed conflicted on the issue, first releasing a statement condemning the policy then rolling it back in follow-up statement that referenced only a need for border security.

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Valadao and Denham may have been wounded even further in this area by their own party leadership, which refused to bring a bipartisan bill crafted by the duo in the eleventh hour to the floor this summer.

One of Cox’s strongest supporters believes this may have cost Valadao the race.

SEIU California, the political arm of the powerful Service Employees International Union, commissioned a David Binder Research to conduct a study that found Cox increased his support among Latinos in the final months of the campaign, while Valadao’s standing remained constant.

The survey, conducted by phone in English and Spanish, asked 500 Latino likely voters in early August whom they would support in the race. A second questionnaire in the days following the election asked 200 Latino voters whom they chose and to select two key reasons why.

In the first, 56 percent said they favored Cox vs. 28 percent for Valadao. Sixteen percent were undecided.

The post-election survey found 70 percent voted for Cox, while 29 percent chose Valadao. The two remaining voters either declined to answer or could not remember.

About half of the voters said health care was a key reason for their choice, while 42 percent said jobs or the economy were a factor. Immigration (33 percent), family separations at the U.S.-Mexican border (23 percent) and the environment (13 percent) rounded out the list.

According to the U.S. Census, 545,577 of the district’s 723,549 people claim some sort of Hispanic or Latino ancestry. More than 211,000 residents are foreign-born.

Cox also had a number of political heavy-hitters campaign for him, including former President Barack Obama, former Vice-President Joe Biden and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

The numbers

With its messaging solidified, the Cox coalition set about sharing it.

Godinich noted that Cox’s campaign ads hit Valley TVs a full five weeks before Valadao’s first commercial.

The DCCC spent about $305,000 in the Bakersfield area and $390,000 in the Fresno area – the two main population hubs within the district – on a joint ad campaign with Cox. The candidate matched the spending, and in turn the party was given the cheaper candidate rate compared with the more expensive political ad costs of filing as independent expenditures.

1-Obama Midterms (4)
President Barack Obama, center, with congressional candidates, from left, Josh Harder, TJ Cox, Gil Cisneros, Katie Porter, Harley Rouda and Mike Levin wave to supporters Saturday in Anaheim. Ringo H.W. Chiu AP

In all, the Democrats spent about $1.21 million in the 21st. Cox raised about $2.9 million and spent nearly all of it. Valadao raised and spent about $3.2 million.

The RNCC did not enter into the spending until the final week, Godinich said, pouring $325,000 in negative ads into a race that was “slipping through their fingers.” He added that Valadao’s campaign also turned purely negative in the final months leading up to the election, which the Democrats took as a sign their opponents knew the race was turning against them.

Some believed the Democrats had even given up on the race.

In the middle of October, the DCCC pulled $70,000 worth of advertisements it had planned on Cox’s behalf for the final week leading up to the election.

Godinich was brief when asked about the move.

“The DCCC’s investments change on a weekly basis, and we are not going to reveal our playbook,” he said in October.

In December, Godinich said Cox was a strong candidate who clearly motivated voters in the 21st. Democratic polls had the race neck and neck, and that’s how it turned out.

But the Republicans didn’t do Valadao any favors, either.

“At the end of the day, (California) Republicans lost because they were having to run on their Washington agenda, which hurt their local races,” Godinich said. “Democrats want to protect Medicare and social programs. Republicans want to slash health care and social security and give tax breaks to the rich.”

“Everything else was a distraction,” he added.

Cox agreed, saying he more or less stuck to the messaging established at the beginning of his campaign.

“It’s very difficult when being attacked on this and that,” he said. “With the residency issues and everything they were throwing at me –we didn’t want to get distracted. We wanted to say here’s a guy who gets things done.”

The Bee reported in late September that Cox owned a home in a Washington, DC suburb that he claimed as a principal residence. Cox also claimed his Fresno home as a principal residence. It is a violation of federal tax laws to claim two principal residences.

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As a result, Valadao’s campaign began to call him a “Maryland resident” in addition to already calling him a 16th District residence – a reference to his Fresno home not being within the 21st.

Cox has since changed his residency status to reflect only one principal home in Fresno.

The future

Now’s his chance to get things done.

Cox said he and his other incoming freshmen are eager to get to work for the country.

“We need to make health care affordable and accessible to all and bring down costs,” Cox said. “We need to put more money in people’s pockets. We need common sense immigration reform.”

He said no one is talking about impeachment. In fact, no one is talking about Trump at all. The talks have all be positive.

In the immediate future, Cox needs to hire a staff and finalize his office plans. He has a few key positions filled, he said, but he declined to elaborate. He plans to have mobile offices set up to cover areas in which constituents may not have easy access to one of his main offices.

Cox said he was transitioning out of managing his businesses, which include Central Valley NMTC, his personal farm, a company that manufacturers farming equipment and various development groups.

He plans to split time between the Valley and Washington, DC.

In talking to his fellow freshmen, Republican and Democrat, Cox feels confident that Congress can pass an infrastructure bill in the coming sessions.

“That’s an easy one,” said Cox, who is also a trained engineer. “Everyone knows it needs to get done. We haven’t made an investment in infrastructure in decades. There are low interest rates and a strong economy. Now is the time to build.”

Cox said he will also work to ensure the Valley is classified as an area of extreme poverty in terms of federal tax breaks and incentives – similar to regions such as Appalachia, the northern Great Plains and the Mississippi Delta.

“That’s the very first thing I am campaigning for,” Cox said. “We can get a little more of our tax dollars back.”

Cox praised the diversity among Democratic freshmen as a strength going into the new year, noting a record number of women – including the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.

“This really is the face of America, with such a wide range of talents,” Cox said. “We have doctors, physicists, social workers and activists.”

“I’m very anxious to get to work,” Cox added.