Visalia Republican Devon Mathis in 2014 shocked the local political world when he won the 26th state Assembly seat over his heavily favored fellow Republican, Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza.
Heading into the election, Mendoza had raised around $280,000 and had a who’s who of endorsements including all five Tulare County supervisors and Congressmen Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao. Mathis was a total dark horse.
Now, Mendoza is seeking a rematch, but for a lot of reasons 2016 is shaping up to be a far different election year than 2014.
Mathis’ big advantage is that he’s now the incumbent. Two years ago, there was no incumbent as Tulare Republican Connie Conway had reached her term limit.
As an incumbent, Mathis can send official state mail to his constituents – at least until the 60-day blackout on state communications begins in April. It’s like taxpayer-supported campaign mail, though legislators would never call it that.
Mathis also has the fundraising power that comes with holding office. Movers and shakers in the state Capitol, including political action committees with deep pockets, are doling out the cash – especially for state legislators.
And Mathis is touting his support from his fellow Assembly Republicans, who support their own.
In a statement released by Mathis, Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, says the caucus is 100 percent behind the freshman legislator.
“Today, Devon received the unanimous endorsement of every Assembly Republican exclusively because of his tireless work on behalf of his neighbors throughout Tulare, Inyo, and Kern Counties,” Mayes says. “Devon’s leadership will continue because his colleagues and I will do everything in our power to ensure his victory in June.”
There’s also history: A vast majority of the time, incumbents win reelection.
On the other hand, Mendoza might have some advantages of his own. Assuming he’ll again be able to raise big money and get the district’s big names behind his campaign, he might this year be able to take advantage of a few major differences from 2014.
Chiefly, there’s only three people in the race – Mathis, Mendoza and Democrat Ruben Macareno. In 2014, there were seven people in the primary, including three Democrats. Macareno was one of the three.
Under the state’s primary election rules, the top two finishers advance to the November general election, regardless of their political party.
In 2014, that was Mendoza, who finished first with 40 percent of the vote, and Mathis who was second with 20.5 percent.
Without a doubt, the 26th District is strongly Republican, but there are still around 30 percent of voters who are Democrats, and probably other independent voters who lean Democrat. In the 2014 June primary, the three Democrats split the vote. If their votes from that election are added together, they total 31.5 percent – a lot more than Mathis’ 20.5 percent.
As the lone Democrat this time around, Macareno can probably expect to win up to a third of the vote, leaving Mathis and Mendoza to battle over the remaining two-thirds.
That means there might not be a Republican vs. Republican runoff this time, and either Mathis or Mendoza could be eliminated from contention in June.
Then there’s the Republican presidential election factor. The pitched battle between businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and, likely, Ohio Gov. John Kasich will still be raging on June 7. Republican turnout will likely skyrocket, as it has in other states.
It’s unclear who it will benefit between Mathis and Mendoza, but it certainly will change the complexion of the GOP vote. It will take money and campaign organization to reach these voters, many of whom might be part of the disaffected electorate that hasn’t cast a ballot in years.
“I think today people could care less when politicians support other politicians,” says Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and a former Republican legislative aide. “Money is much better than endorsements in this day and age.”
And for Mathis, that could be the key. Will his Assembly Republican colleagues come to his aid with cash?
Mathis raised only around $22,000 for his 2014 showdown with Mendoza. And at the end of last year, Mathis had less than $75,000 in his campaign account – a paltry amount for a sitting Assembly member. He raised $185,000 last year.
Based on $1,000-plus contributions – which are required to be reported to the Secretary of State within 24 hours – Mathis’ fundraising this year is almost non existent.
Now might be the time for Mathis to hit up the Sacramento contributors as well as his Republican Assembly colleagues. Right now, it seems he needs more than their endorsement.