Lo­cal del­e­ga­tion faces changed land­scape in Con­gress

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RORY AP­PLE­TON rap­ple­ton@fres­nobee.com

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.

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 chair­man of 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, first­time 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 19month 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-and­forth – 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 midOc­to­ber.

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 chair­man, 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 has 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 long­time 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, RTur­lock, 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.”

Devin Nunes

Rep. David Val­adao

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