Path to vic­tory over Nunes is long, wind­ing

Demo­cratic up­start Janz in up­hill bat­tle in Calif.

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Joshua Yea­ger

After 16 years, Rep. Devin Nunes, RCalif., is set to face his first cred­i­ble chal­lenger in the Demo­cratic up­start An­drew Janz.

Well, that’s ac­cord­ing to Janz. But does the Fresno pros­e­cu­tor stand a chance of un­seat­ing the eight-term in­cum­bent and Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment dar­ling?

Nearly all the avail­able data would sug­gest “no.” Still, the cam­paign waged against a Visalia son of im­mi­grants con­tin­ues to earn cov­er­age across the state and na­tion.

No phonies al­lowed

What could a Demo­cratic path­way to vic­tory look like in one of Cal­i­for­nia’s most staunchly con­ser­va­tive dis­tricts, where Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump trounced Hil­lary Clin­ton by 10 points just two years ago?

Stephen Too­tle, a Col­lege of the Se­quoias his­tory pro­fes­sor and vice-chair of the Tu­lare County Repub­li­can Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, said the roots of Nunes’ Cen­tral Val­ley supremacy can be traced back to a will­ing­ness to en­gage with his com­mu­nity.

Too­tle said the politi­cian first ap­peared on his radar when Nunes came to shake hands at Mearle’s, the his­toric drive-in burger joint on Mooney Boule­vard. It’s now a Habit Burger Grill.

Too­tle’s father was a reg­u­lar at the restau­rant, and Nunes’ “straight-shooter” de­meanor im­pressed him.

“If there’s one thing the Cen­tral Val­ley won’t abide, it’s a phony,” Too­tle said.

Too­tle, though he wasn’t liv­ing in Visalia at the time, made an ef­fort to re­search Nunes and his plat­form. He was im­pressed by the Tu­lare farmer’s ded­i­ca­tion to is­sues he thought mat­tered most to Cen­tral Val­ley con­stituents, from wa­ter law to tax re­form.

A few years later, Too­tle would have the op­por­tu­nity to meet and work with Nunes.

Be­fore he led the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Nunes was a mem­ber of the Col­lege of the Se­quoias Board of Trustees. Too­tle said Nunes con­tin­ues to take an ac­tive in­ter­est not only in the state of af­fairs at COS but also in ed­u­ca­tion across the Cen­tral Val­ley as a whole.

As for the con­gress­man’s re­cent con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing a de­clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence memo on Rus­sia and Trump’s Chi­nese trade war, which could dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt Val­ley farm­ers, Too­tle said he’s not con­cerned.

“Devin will con­tinue to serve and act in the best in­ter­ests of his con­stituents, as he has for the past 16 years,” he said.

Sum­mer of scan­dal

Other Cen­tral Val­ley res­i­dents have looked less kindly on Nunes’ Wash­ing­ton ac­tiv­i­ties. Tu­lare’s so-called fa­vorite son has seen a sum­mer be­set by scan­dal, from mis­ap­pro­pri­ated cam­paign funds to a war with a news­pa­per.

Among some, frus­tra­tion with Nunes is borne out in a se­ries of high-pro­file protests at the con­gress­man’s house and Clo­vis of­fice and in a se­ries of bill­boards along High­way 99: “Why is Devin Nunes hot on Rus­sia ... / While farm­ers get burned by a trade war with China? / Con­gress­man Nunes, how could you for­get us?”

Although Janz said he didn’t pay for the ads, his cam­paign has cap­i­tal­ized on the mes­sage, us­ing one of Nunes’ pre­vi­ous strate­gies – grass­roots pol­i­tick­ing in his own back­yard – against him.

Nunes, on the other hand, said the bill­boards have helped him be­cause the de­sign­ers de­cided to put large pho­tos of Nunes along with small text that mo­torists are ex­pected to read as they zoom by at 80 mph.

After Nunes earned 58 per­cent in the June pri­mary, he pointed to er­ro­neous polls that said he would strug­gle to break 50 per­cent after na­tion­wide con­tro­versy.

“It’s scary what the me­dia will do to create a mas­sive fake news story,” Nunes told the Times-Delta. “It has to be fac­tual, and these fake news sto­ries lead­ing up to the pri­mary were noth­ing but at­tacks. I en­joyed it. The stronger the at­tack, the more sup­port we had.”

In­cum­bent ‘has lost touch’

Closer to the ground, Janz said he’s lost track of how many homes he’s vis­ited and how many hands he’s shaken over the past year. He’s held more than two dozen fo­rums for small groups.

The ef­fort has res­onated with some Cen­tral Val­ley vot­ers. A few have been com­pelled to open their homes to the can­di­date and vol­un­teer for a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign for the first time.

Lali Mo­heno, a former Tu­lare County su­per­vi­sor, is one such vol­un­teer.

Be­fore Trump’s elec­tion, Mo­heno said, she had been a long­time Nunes sup­porter. Although she has been a Demo­crat “all my life,” she rea­soned that Nunes, who comes from a Por­tuguese im­mi­grant fam­ily, would be more con­cerned with im­mi­gra­tion is­sues.

“Devin has lost touch,” Mo­heno said. “Ev­ery­thing is the same, same, same.”

Mo­heno said she has at­tended mul­ti­ple Repub­li­can din­ners hosted by Nunes, but she was met with “Repub­li­can jar­gon” at each event.

“Why isn’t he talk­ing about Tu­lare County?” she said. “This is a safe dis­trict for Devin – peo­ple like him. He shouldn’t be throw­ing that away.”

For Janz, re­main­ing at­ten­tive will be key, ex­perts say.

“Janz is mak­ing the ar­gu­ment that Nunes is ab­sent, off pro­tect­ing the pres­i­dent, rather than deal­ing with con­stituents,” said Thomas Holyoke, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Fresno State. “If Janz can make that ar­gu­ment stick, Nunes could be in trou­ble.”

“This is a safe dis­trict for Devin – peo­ple like him. He shouldn’t be throw­ing that away.” Lali Mo­heno, a former Tu­lare County su­per­vi­sor and vol­un­teer for Rep. Devin Nunes’ ri­val in the midterms, An­drew Janz

RON HOL­MAN

Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date An­drew Janz spends time with sup­port­ers dur­ing a bar­be­cue at a Visalia, Calif., home July 13.

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