Path to victory over Nunes is long, winding
Democratic upstart Janz in uphill battle in Calif.
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
Democratic congressional candidate Andrew Janz spends time with supporters during a barbecue at a Visalia, Calif., home July 13.