WASHINGTON — Mike Berryhill's fellow San Joaquin Valley Republicans confront a delicate choice with his decision to challenge Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
Some of those same Republicans have financially supported Cardoza in the past. Some now serve with Cardoza in the House of Representatives, where colleagues must weigh partisan gain against regional loyalty. Berryhill's political chances as well as Cardoza's future working relationships both hang in the balance.
Money makes the dilemma manifest: Which Republicans will contribute to Berryhill, or any other GOP contender, and which will not?
"It would put me in a tough spot," Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from Visalia, acknowledged Friday. "Dennis and I have a long history of working together ... but if it's beginning to look like a race, obviously I'd have to support the Republican."
Nunes noted that other Republicans still might enter the GOP primary for a shot against Cardoza, and he said he hadn't yet talked to Berryhill. Many political professionals likewise take a wait-and-see attitude in assessing challengers, even as the challengers themselves beat the bushes for every available dollar.
"Everybody needs to hit the seven-figure mark if you're going to run a competitive campaign against an incumbent," said Berryhill's campaign consultant, Carl Fogliani.
Cardoza is a proven fundraiser, with years of campaign experience under his belt. He reports having $376,782 in his campaign treasury as of June 30.
"We're going to gear up, and we're going to work hard," Cardoza said Friday.
Berryhill, who announced his candidacy Aug. 24, has not yet reported raising any money.
Berryhill nonetheless characterizes himself as a "top tier" candidate, seeking to distinguish his prospects from Cardoza's past long-shot GOP challengers who have never received above 35 percent of the vote. A Turlock Irrigation District director and former Ceres Unified School District trustee, Berryhill cites his well-connected family including cousins Bill and Tom Berryhill, both currently in the state Assembly. His late uncle Clare Berryhill served in the state Senate.
Family name identification and local leadership positions may help establish credibility, but the National Republican Congressional Committee does not throw money at every candidate. Instead, fundraising becomes a self-fulfilling cycle: The more money a candidate raises, the more attractive the candidate becomes to other contributors.
"You have to earn your support from the national party," Fogliani said.
Party identification alone doesn't always carry a lot of weight.
Cardoza, for instance, would not financially support Democrats running against former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, as the two lawmakers worked together on farm and endangered species issues.
"Frankly, if we cooperated more aggressively, we would all be better off," Cardoza said in April 2005, following an unusual joint fundraiser he held with Pombo.
The Democrat who eventually beat Pombo in 2006, Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, knew enough about the political dynamic not to ask Cardoza for his support.
In recent months, Nunes has crossed swords with both Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. Their increasingly public disagreements over water-related tactics and strategy have sometimes seemed to threaten the relative bipartisan comity often found among Valley lawmakers.
Still, cross-party colleagues frequently save money and avoid potential conflict by shunning challengers who they know don't have a chance. Stockton Republican John Kanno, for instance, spent $138,000 in his unsuccessful 2006 bid against Cardoza; none of it came from congressional Republicans.