WASHINGTON — The 2010 election has turned San Joaquin Valley congressional clout upside down, with still-uncertain consequences for Valley residents.
Even as vote-counting continues in two excruciatingly close Valley races, some political shakeout is becoming clear. A Republican from Bakersfield, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, is on track to serious power as House majority whip. For many, he'll become the man to see.
On the flip side, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, is losing the subcommittee chairmanship he's used to aid the Valley's fruit and vegetable growers. His position on a key House leadership committee is undermined and his back, some believe, now has a bulls-eye painted on it.
"I do know (Cardoza) will be on top of the target list," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "He'll be seen as a vulnerable incumbent, and there will be an effort to recruit a strong challenger for 2012."
Nunes' prediction may not be shared by others. Cardoza, after all, beat Republican challenger Mike Berryhill by a solid-sounding 58-42 percent margin.
Still, the fact that Nunes predicts trouble for a Valley colleague reflects another consequence of the 2010 election: The San Joaquin Valley congressional delegation is fracturing. Personal relations have seemingly soured between Nunes on the one hand and Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on the other. Cooperation could be harder to come by.
Costa was lagging 1,823 votes behind GOP challenger Andy Vidak as of Friday morning, with thousands of mail and provisional ballots yet to be tallied. Even if Costa recovers, his narrow margin over a previously unknown candidate will have Republicans salivating over 2012.
Political vulnerability, in turn, shapes how lawmakers vote, speak and spend their time. Raising money becomes much more important. Party leaders lose some influence. Redistricting, which occurs next year, becomes absolutely crucial and all-consuming.
Another incumbent whose district reaches part of the Valley, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, clung to a 441-vote advantage over challenger David Harmer as of Friday morning. McNerney's district includes Ripon, Escalon and other parts of San Joaquin County.
One newcomer who definitely knows he's coming to Congress is state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater. Elected in the 19th Congressional District, which stretches from Modesto to Fresno via the Sierra Nevada, Denham said Friday he has hired his chief of staff, Jason Larrabee. Denham also will be on Capitol Hill the week of Nov. 15, angling for a slot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"The biggest issues are going to be the economy and water," Denham said. "Those two are intertwined in the Valley."
If he doesn't get the plum assignment to Energy and Commerce, Denham has asked for positions on the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees.
Committee assignments shape Capitol Hill achievement. As chair of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, for instance, Cardoza wrote more federal spending for fruits and vegetables into the 2008 farm bill. A Republican will now chair that panel.
Cardoza's position on the House Rules Committee also loses its juice. The leadership-appointed panel, which screens all legislation going to the House floor, is stacked so heavily in favor of the majority that minority members appear powerless.
"We are still two months out from the next Congress, and clearly there are many unknowns and many decisions to be made," Cardoza's spokesman Mike Jensen said Friday, adding that "Congressman Cardoza has served in both the majority and the minority (and) in both instances he has worked equally hard to provide the best possible representation."
Nunes could chair a subcommittee on the House Ways and Means Committee, though he said he "may or may not take that position" depending on other priorities and developments.
Nunes said he talked about California water issues after the election with the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Nunes indicated he's not yet sure whether "a big package" or "three or four smaller bills" will work best.
Aggressive bills, which boost irrigation water deliveries and ease environmental restrictions, will have an easier time getting through the House than through the Senate, which remains under narrow Democratic control.
The 45-year-old McCarthy will be the Valley's highest-ranking lawmaker, if as expected he wins the job of House majority whip. That will place him third in the House leadership, and make him the first Valley lawmaker to be the chief vote-counter since Democrat Tony Coelho resigned in 1989.
"The whip must have the deepest understanding of the individuals who make up our conference," McCarthy said in declaring his candidacy.