WASHINGTON — Republicans in California's San Joaquin Valley are girding for a potential intramural clash pitting former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson against incumbent Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa.
Though Patterson has made no official campaign announcement, Republican and Democratic circles alike are abuzz with anticipation that he will declare his candidacy in early January. Privately, some Valley political activists say they have already been assured Patterson will challenge Radanovich.
"It's certainly going to be an interesting race if he does run," prominent Republican and Fresno Lincoln Club president Michael Der Manouel Jr. noted, though he stressed that no decision can be counted as final until candidacy papers are filed.
Patterson insisted Wednesday that he is still undecided, though he acknowledged he has been "testing the waters up and down the district." Tellingly, he added that he has no interest in running for an open seat in the state Legislature.
"I think I am suited best to be in Congress and that is where I'd love to serve in these times," Patterson said.
A primary race between Radanovich and Patterson would instantly become one of the most closely watched in California, if not the nation. It would likely become expensive, forcing campaign contributors to either choose sides or hedge their bets.
A GOP primary also would almost certainly select the next congressman from the 19th Congressional District. Republicans enjoy a commanding 44-37 percent voter registration advantage in the district, which sweeps through all or part of Fresno, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Madera counties.
First elected in 1994, when he unseated Democratic incumbent Rick Lehman, Radanovich has held his seat without serious challenge ever since. He would enter a contested primary with several advantages over Patterson, but also some potential campaign handicaps.
Radanovich's wife, Ethie, has been sick, forcing the congressman to miss several day's worth of votes the week of Dec. 14. Ethie Radanovich was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago, and subsequently has undergone several forms of treatment.
Radanovich cited the holidays and the importance of helping his wife regain her strength in declining Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a primary challenge.
"George's position is that if Patterson wants to run, that's fine," Radanovich's chief of staff, Ted Maness, said Wednesday. "George is happy to compare his efforts to help the people of the San Joaquin Valley to Patterson's efforts when he was mayor."
Radanovich has never been a dynamic fundraiser when compared to some of his congressional colleagues. He had $185,851 in his campaign treasury Sept. 30. By contrast, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has more than $1 million socked away. At the same time, Radanovich enjoys an incumbent's inherent fundraising clout. Half of his money raised so far this year comes from political action committees, which are often leery about backing challengers.
Patterson could expect fundraising help from farmers and businessmen who have broken from Radanovich, notably Fresno-area businessman Robert Smittcamp and Madera County farmer Kole Upton. They voice unhappiness, in particular, over Radanovich's support for a San Joaquin River restoration deal — a deal opposed by Nunes, and one at the heart of any Patterson campaign.
"Radanovich has been (in Congress) a long time and has done very little, and has been an impediment to what Devin is trying to do," Patterson said.
The district's makeup could help Radanovich. Following the 2000 Census, the district's boundaries shifted to fold in portions of Stanislaus County.
"We see him frequently," said Michael Lynch, a Modesto-based political consultant.
A Democrat, Lynch added that he does "not detect a high demand in this part of the district that George be removed." The Turlock Chamber of Commerce, on whose board of directors Lynch serves, has already endorsed Radanovich for re-election. About one-third of the district's registered Republicans live in Stanislaus County.
About one-third of the district's registered Republican voters live in Fresno County, Patterson's potential base. He served as Fresno mayor from 1993 to 2001, and he carried Fresno County in an unsuccessful 2002 primary congressional race won by Nunes.
"I think Patterson will give George a very strong challenge because George has not been a true conservative throughout his term," said Republican activist Tal Cloud, who blasts Radanovich over the San Joaquin River issue.
Still, Radanovich earned perfect 100 percent vote ratings from the National Right to Life Committee, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a 94 percent rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an 87 percent vote rating from the American Conservative Union over the past two years.