The West

‘Never seen anything like this’: Devin Nunes lawsuits are confusing fellow Republicans

Republicans who typically support Rep. Devin Nunes are less willing to speak up for him since he filed a lawsuit against one of his own constituents.

The lawsuit is Nunes’ third in which he alleges that political consultants conspired against him to damage his chances for re-election last year. Nunes, R-Tulare, won the race against Democratic challenger Andrew Janz, but by a closer margin than in his previous campaigns.

The previous two cases targeted social media giant Twitter and McClatchy, the parent company of The Fresno Bee. They also named Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist.

The new case names four California residents, one of whom is Paul Buxman, a retired farmer who says he voted for Nunes in the past.

Critics of Nunes, who is one of about three dozen House Republicans being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, were quick to seize on the difference between suing corporations and suing a retired constituent.

“He has filed lawsuits against his own constituents,” Phil Arballo, a Democratic businessman in the district planning to challenge Nunes in 2020, said in a speech in front of Nunes’ district office Tuesday. “Let me repeat, a sitting member of congress is suing his own constituents. This is outrageous, Rep. Nunes is unhinged.”

Even some of those within Nunes’ own party are unwilling to defend his latest move. Half a dozen California Republicans — most of whom have defended Nunes in the past — contacted by McClatchy either did not return a request for comment or outright said they would not comment on the issue.

Two Republican consultants who have managed political campaigns in the San Joaquin Valley, Kevin Spillane and Carl Fogliani, were willing to speak on the record, both saying they were confused by Nunes’ tactics.

“There seems to be no strategy other than to attack his enemies,” Spillane said. “He should focus on working his district and stay out of the politics of Washington, D.C.”

Asked if these lawsuits helped further the perception that Nunes had become less concerned with his district — a frequent criticism of Nunes by Democrats — Spillane said, “Well, I don’t think it helps him.”

Nunes in the lawsuit charges that Democratic political groups used “dark money” to contest Nunes’ description of himself as a farmer on ballots that went to California voters.

Nunes in the lawsuit also accuses a Democratic group called Campaign for Accountability of publishing emails by his wife, a schoolteacher in the district, which lead to the harassment of her and other coworkers.

Fogliani was more supportive of Nunes, saying he had “never seen anything like this.” He speculated that Nunes was likely motivated by the Democratic group targeting his wife.

“Besides that, all this seems within the confines of what campaigns usually entail, but you mess with the bull then you get the horns,” Fogliani said.”But yeah, I don’t know what there is to gain here.”

Former Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, of Turlock, also faced a challenge over his designation of farmer on the ballot by the same Democratic group in 2018. Secretary of State Alex Padilla dismissed both challenges, allowing Denham and Nunes to describe themselves as farmers on ballots.

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Denham called the challenge “ridiculous” at the time, but there is no indication he plans to file suit over the issue. Denham, who is now a lobbyist, did not return a request for comment.

Nunes’ challenger Arballo said the lawsuit points to a deeper problem in how Nunes is thinking.

“These lawsuits are representative of where his head is at,” Arballo told McClatchy. “He wants to put the muzzle on anyone who stands up to challenge him.”

Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment. But Mike Der Manouel Jr., a Republican strategist and close Nunes ally, said Nunes is responding in a rational way to people who have continued to target him, and that people who do so are “fair game,” regardless of if they’re constituents. He called ballot designation challenges “childish.”

“You’re seeing bloodsport at its highest level in 50 years,” Der Manouel said. “You have to show them you’ll punch back and punch back hard, otherwise they won’t back off.”

“If you don’t like it, don’t launch the attack in the first place,” he added.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.