Democrats know they’ll need more than President Donald Trump to defeat an incumbent like Jeff Denham.
To understand the party’s real plan of attack in this Central Valley California district, go back to April 2017, to a town hall meeting teeming with a thousand angry activists. The now 50-year-old Denham, built like a hockey player and wearing a microphone clipped to his sport coat, was trying to explain his position on a GOP health care bill that would partially repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The event was contentious. Audience members who interrupted him — and they interrupted him frequently — held pieces of paper with their zip code written on it, to prove they were constituents, not out-of-town agitators.
After several minutes of explanation, Denham gave an answer they wanted to hear: “I have expressed to leadership that I am a ‘no’ on the health care vote until it is responsive to my community.”
Seventeen days later, he voted for the bill.
This — not Trump — is how Democrats plan to win in November.
“This is the center of the resistance because this is a district where that vote was really felt,” Josh Harder, Denham’s Democratic challenger, told me a week after he had won the de-facto June 5 Democratic primary here.
To win the House majority, Democratic Party leaders need to defeat battle-tested Republican members such as Denham. They’ve fallen short in recent elections — against Republicans such as Mike Coffman in Colorado and Barbara Comstock in Virginia — races in which GOP incumbents have convinced voters that they are independent enough to act as moderating voices in Trump’s Washington.
But GOP votes for Obamacare repeal make Democrats think they have a message that will stick in 2018 in California’s 10th district and 11 others like it across the country, seats where the party faces uncommonly strong incumbents.
“We’re going to make sure as many people as possible there know that Denham owns that health care bill,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC. “He voted to jack up costs and take away coverage. Good luck explaining that.”
The 10th district, located nearly a hundred miles east of San Francisco, isn’t part of the suburban backlash to Trump: the area is blue collar, with relatively high unemployment and a dependency on agro-business. It has a large Latino population (roughly 40 percent) and voters here supported both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2012, even as Denham was winning their support for re-election. It’s one of 25 districts held by a Republican that Clinton won in 2016 — two fewer than the number of seats Democrats must win to claim a majority.
“There is zero way that Democrats take back the House without taking back this district,” Harder said. “There is no way you can draw the map where we take back 23 seats and don’t take back this one.”
[For more coverage of 2018’s bellwether districts, check out our Ground Game page.]
Denham was in a jail when he started talking about Tucker Carlson. The congressman had driven 10 minutes south of downtown Modesto to this new Stanislaus County detention center, to drop off a box of used books from the Library of Congress. His appearance this April day didn’t have much of an audience apart from the local sheriff and a pair of reporters: The facility did not yet house inmates.
Denham had just put the books down when he was asked about his recent tense appearance on the Fox News host’s show, in which the two men sparred over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, that protected from deportation young people brought illegally to America by their parents.
Denham supports DACA; Carlson does not, and the Fox commentator is not shy about telling the California Republican that he’s on the wrong side of that dispute. (One chyron from Denham’s appearance read, “Tucker takes on pro-amnesty Republican.”)
“He’s a tough interviewer,” Denham said while walking out of the detention center, suggesting the dispute was nothing more than a good-faith argument between two men who simply see an issue differently.
That may be, but it doesn’t make Denham’s behavior normal: Republican congressmen don’t pick many fights with leading media personalities such as Carlson, much less send a press release afterward touting the appearance. (Denham even returned to the show a month later.)
But for Denham, unabashed advocacy for policies such as DACA is how he tries to separate himself from his party — something his team knows is a necessity in a district like this. Just in the last few weeks he led an effort, against the wishes of party leadership, to force a House vote on DACA.
And just a few hours before his visit to this detention center, in fact, his office — in a video it posted to Facebook — announced it had helped to locate and process a local high school student’s DACA paperwork.
“If you have a challenge with the United States government that we can help you out with … we hope you’ll let us work for you as well,” Denham said in the video.
Denham isn’t some kind of remarkable maverick within the Republican Party: He supported Trump in 2016, if reluctantly; he voted for the Obamacare repeal and the GOP tax cut bill; and even on a subject such as immigration, he talks as much about securing the border as he does making sure that the DACA kids (who are now young adults) are allowed to stay.
But he has deliberately pursued a course this year that strays from the path Trump has paved and that most Republicans are following. He’s trading his party’s sharp-edged cultural agenda for a more traditionally Republican, live-and-let-live approach.
“He’s not a bomb-thrower on the right or the left,” said Mike Lynch, a Democrat consultant from the district. “And he does his homework. Generally, when you talk to him about an issue, he knows what he’s talking about.”
When Lynch and I had lunch in Modesto, he showed me a picture on his phone of his front yard in 2016, which held yards signs for both Clinton and Denhan. A self-described moderate Democrat, Lynch was the chief of staff for former Democratic Rep. Gary Condit. He says he has voted for a Republican because, in part, he sees Denham as one of the few members of his party making a genuine effort for immigration reform.
Denham has successfully distinguished himself from Republican leaders in the past, winning his district by about 3.5 points in 2016 while Trump lost it by 3 points.
By every indication, he’ll need to repeat the feat in 2018: A poll commissioned last summer by pro-Democratic Super PAC California 7 Project found that Trump had just a 44 percent approval rating in the district.
And the poll estimated that of the persuadable voters in the district — people who might back either party — 43 percent of them were neither Republican nor Democrat.
Denham speaks Spanish (his wife’s father is from Mexico), and aides say he likes to converse with constituents who tell him they don’t speak English, only to find the congressman shift into his second language.
One of Denham’s former Democratic opponents, the Spanish-speaking Virginia Madueno, rated Denham’s Spanish a “B minus.”
“He can hold his own,” said Madueno, who has known the congressman for years. “He can definitely hold his own.”
Madueno — at the time still running to replace him in office — criticized Denham’s health care vote and said he was in the grip of wealthy special interests. But she acknowledged that, in her view, the congressman was also “charismatic.”
“A lot of people like Jeff Denham,” she said.
Latino outreach isn’t Denham’s only move to the middle of the electorate. Any conversation with the congressman about electoral priorities includes a lengthy discussion of water, an issue of special importance in the drought-stricken state. And a discussion about water soon segues to talk about the need for pragmatic representation focused not in Washington but here in the district.
“All things local,” Denham said. “You know, a lot of people here aren’t focused on what the national message is, or what the next Tweet was that came out. More people are focused on what are you doing right here in home and are you working with your local electeds.”
It gets repetitive to talk to Democratic strategists in Washington and across country when the conversation turns to November’s races and the message they want their candidates to emphasize. Nearly every assessment is the same: Avoid Trump, talk about health care.
They think this way for two reasons: First, the relentless attention paid to the president means people are hyper-aware of just about everything he does, so voters gain little from the extra information in a campaign ad.
Second, criticism of Trump tends to emphasize his personal shortcomings; voters care more about the status of their pocketbooks. It’s always the economy, especially in a blue-collar district like the 10th.
That’s why Denham’s opponent, Harder, is fixating on healthcare. In April, he and the rest of the then-Democratic field visited a modest church outside of Modesto, where the urban landscape of the city gives way to sprawling farmland and orchards. They were there for a bilingual candidate forum, where Harder — seated behind a table — would give answers that were immediately translated into Spanish for the 150 mostly Hispanic men and women in attendance.
It’s a key voter bloc in a district where about one-quarter of the electorate might be Latino.
Even here, however, Harder wanted to talk about health care, telling the crowd the story of his little brother, born premature and with a pre-existing condition, and how many like him wouldn’t have been able to receive care if the GOP’s bill had become law.
When I talked to him after June 5, Harder said his pre-primary ads featured so much talk about health care that they even began to worry his family.
“Health care was pounded again and again and to the point where my mom said, ‘Josh, people think all you care about is health care,’” Harder said. “And I said, ‘That’s OK!”
Harder is 31 years old, educated at Stanford University before receiving an M.B.A. from Harvard, and used to be a venture capitalist before teaching business classes at Modesto Junior College. Clean-shaven with short dark hair, he looks even younger than his age, though he promises that voters won’t hold that against him.
In the run up to June’s primary, Denham aides plainly wanted Harder to become the Democrats’ pick because of the contrast in experience.
They’ll accuse Harder of being more at home in San Francisco than Modesto, a potentially brutal criticism in an area that sees its coastal neighbor drawing ever more money, attention and resources at its perceived expense.
And they’ll push back on criticism that the health care bill would have been a disaster. Denham repeats endlessly that the problem with healthcare in the district is rooted in the unavailability of doctors, especially those who will accept patients on Medi-Cal. (California’s version of Medicaid.)
Local Democrats add that the push from some in-state liberals for a massive single-payer healthcare system could further complicate Harder’s criticism.
But, if it seems unlikely that a newcomer could defeat a strong Republican incumbent with a reputation for independence, recent political history suggests otherwise. Just eight years ago, in the summer of 2010, Democrats had convinced themselves that many of their incumbents could survive the coming storm even though they too had voted for a controversial health care bill, Obamacare.
They were wrong.
“It was a very high-profile vote that allowed my independent representation of North Dakota to be called into question,” said Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who voted for Obamacare in 2010 and lost in November of that year.
Pomeroy had served in Congress for 18 years, overcoming the state’s strong Republican lean by crafting an image as an independent lawmaker. One vote, and he lost re-election by more than a dozen points. He sees the parallels in California’s 10th district, and the risk to Denham.
“In a Hillary district, an incumbent that voted to repeal the ACA better hope the voters are thinking about something else,” Pomeroy said.
As much as both Denham and Harder both want to minimize Trump’s role in this race, they won’t be able to block the Trump effect fully. What voters think about the president will shape the midterm elections, from who turns out to vote to how people regard the GOP’s legislative accomplishments.
“So many of the constituents feel he has aligned himself with Trump, although he’ll never quite say it,” said Rebecca Harrington, a Democrat and member of the local Hispanic community who attended a meeting with the Small Business Administration that Denham helped organize. “Yet when it comes down to voting and how things are addressed, his policies seem to align with Trump. And that is the problem and that is what’s caused so many people to be in an uproar.”
In 2016, Denham called then-candidate Trump’s words “disturbing,” “inappropriate” and “outlandish.”
In 2018, he’s more circumspect. After I asked Denham what criticism he would offer of the president, he stood in silence for 20 seconds, his mouth slightly agape as he searched for the right response.
“I wouldn’t say it’s much of a criticism, but it’s certainly a challenge that when he does Tweet out his ideas, they take us by surprise sometimes,” Denham said, breaking the silence.
“But if it’s his style, I’m willing to work with it.”