Politics & Government

Why this California Democrat is having trouble raising money in his own district

Freshman Democratic Rep. TJ Cox has collected less than 1 percent of his donations for his re-election campaign from donors within the southern San Joaquin Valley district he’s running to represent.

Meanwhile, his challenger, former Rep. David Valadao, has taken in about $120,000 from within the district, mostly from people in the farming business.

The race is shaping up to be a hotly contested rematch of their 2018 race. Cox, D-Fresno, beat Valadao, R-Hanford, by less than 1,000 votes in November. It was one of seven California congressional districts that Democrats flipped from Republicans last year.

Both the Democratic and Republican fundraising arms for congressional races have named the district a top priority for 2020.

“This can definitely be a warning sign, especially if they’ve already been elected,” said Thad Kousser, chairman of the political science department at UC San Diego. “Once you get in, you’re serving the district and you’re there a lot. You should have a network.”

Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego, said it could be a signal of fundraising priorities but not necessarily represent a serious problem for Cox.

“It reflects the national nature of congressional elections now, especially in these contested districts,” Jacobson said “There’s going to be a lot of outside money in this, and that cuts both ways.”

Cox raised $2,331 from donors who live in his district last quarter, out of about $350,000 in total contributions.

That aligns with his past fundraising for his re-election campaign, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, which reports less than 1 percent of his total funds have come from within the district. Those numbers do not yet reflect the third quarter fundraising.

Most of Cox’s donors come from within California, but not in the district, according to the OpenSecrets analysis. Industry influences are also not high on his list of donors — the top contributors to Cox’s campaign are retirees, other members of Congress and attorneys.

Cox’s campaign said there were more donations from within the district than the 11 who appeared in the most recent data. Some donors gave less than $200, and therefore would not show up on campaign finance reports. The campaign said the average in district donation was $35.87.

“He was just sworn in this year – I’d say if he doesn’t have a fundraising base in the district next year then I’d be worried,” Kousser said.

Valadao has raised $120,910 from 74 donors living in the district last quarter, his first full quarter of campaigning in 2020, out of $534,000 in total contributions. That’s about 22 percent of his funding, which is consistent with his numbers in the 2018 election and other previous cycles.

Andrew Renteria, a spokesman for Valadao, said Cox’s lack of support in the district was due to his “rubber stamping the radical agenda of Bay Area environmentalists instead of representing working people in the Central Valley.”

“David is supported by Democrats and Republicans because they know he can be trusted to represent the needs of the Central Valley on important issues like water and jobs,” Renteria said. “It is really not surprising TJ Cox is lacking support here.”

About three-quarters of the in-district donors to Valadao are involved in agriculture businesses, such as farming and ranching.

Valadao’s family dairy went bankrupt last year, and Valadao personally filed for bankruptcy protection as a result earlier this year. Dairy farmers specifically throughout the district contributed thousands to Valadao.

That’s standard in districts like this, and a big explanation for Cox’s trouble in fundraising in the district, Jacobson said.

“Think about it: Farmworkers don’t tend to have a lot of money to donate to a political campaign,” he said. “Republicans are the ones who own the farms.”

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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.