WASHINGTON — State Sen. Jeff Denham's victory Tuesday in a congressional primary left a bad taste in the mouth of at least one potential Republican colleague.
Even as Denham was taking a victory lap after winning the 19th Congressional District primary, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said allegations of "serious illegalities" in Denham's campaign needed to be addressed. Until they are, Nunes said, he won't support his fellow Republican.
"I'm really concerned," Nunes said in an interview Wednesday. "There are (allegations of) serious illegalities that have to be answered."
Nunes specifically cited Denham's sending $175,000 in state campaign funds to a veterans charity, which aired pre-election ads prominently featuring Denham. The May 28 event held at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino raised funds for a state license plate program that supports families of slain military personnel.
A leaked Chukchansi marketing department memo, which casino officials dismissed as inaccurate, suggested the concert also was meant benefit Denham's campaign. The event ads didn't cite Denham's candidacy, but did provide valuable exposure throughout the San Joaquin Valley congressional district.
An Air Force veteran and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Denham said Wednesday that he was simply trying to help his fellow veterans and their family members. He said he didn't know he would be featured in the radio and television advertisements when his state Senate account contributed $25,000 and loaned $150,000 to the non-profit Remembering the Brave Foundation
"I am confident that we have followed the letter of the law," Denham said, citing written legal advice his campaign received from a campaign finance specialist.
Federal law prohibits candidates from spending money on their campaigns that had been raised originally for a state campaign. At the same time, candidates have some leeway in how they distribute state campaign funds.
Several campaign finance experts previously interviewed by the Bee suggested contributions to a charity that run ads potentially benefiting a candidate fall into a gray area of the law.
"Maybe we've discovered a new way to campaign, to run public service announcements for a month," Nunes said skeptically, adding that "all of these questions just have to be asked."
Nunes vigorously backed one of Denham's three opponents, former Tracy-area congressman Richard Pombo, during the primary. Still, Nunes' post-election call for a Federal Election Commission and Justice Department investigation marked an extraordinary departure from the tradition that parties unify once a primary is over.
In the short term, it may only marginally complicate Denham's general election bid to represent a district stretching from Modesto to Fresno. Denham is the overwhelming favorite to beat Democratic nominee Loraine Goodwin in a district where Republicans enjoy a large voter registration advantage.
Longer term, though, Nunes' public blasting of Denham raises questions about how the two men will be able to work together on common San Joaquin Valley issues. Less overtly, Nunes has had periodically strained relations with the incumbent Denham hopes to replace, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.
Radanovich backed Denham in the race.
Though Nunes didn't let up Wednesday in his critique of Denham, saying several times that "at the end of the day, I'm an American before I'm a Republican," colleagues suggested time might heal campaign wounds.
"In races, things get frustrating," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, "and so what's needed is more communication. Issues, like water, will bring them together."
McCarthy switched his support from Denham to Pombo during the race. He called Denham on Wednesday to congratulate him.
"Once an election is over, it's time for people to come together," Denham said, "and I expect the San Joaquin Valley delegation will come together."