Politics & Government

Valley incumbents face little or no opposition

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley congressmen face little competition this November but insist they are taking nothing for granted.

The Valley incumbents are still stockpiling money, working their districts and keeping a close eye on their long-shot challengers. The House members, Republicans and Democrats alike, know complacency can kill a career.

"We run a campaign all the time," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "We're doing the yard signs, we'll probably do a little print advertising ... and I'm out and about, hitting the coffee shops, meeting people."

Nunes and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, both face challengers who have little money, little name identification and little chance of winning. Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, have no opponents at all.

The result is a bundle of races in name only whose results nonetheless can be telling. The incumbents' goal is not just to win -- that part is assumed -- but to win by a margin hefty enough to deter future challengers as well.

In 2006, Nunes won by a 67 percent to 30 percent margin, and Costa ran unopposed. As a rule of thumb, incumbents are only considered vulnerable if they win with under 55 percent of the vote.

"It's important to win by a good margin," Costa said.

If it's necessary this year, Nunes said, he is prepared to blast his 21st Congressional District with television advertising. He has the money to do so, reporting $901,862 in campaign cash on hand as of Sept. 30. But like his Valley colleagues, he probably won't have the need.

Lawrence Tufts Johnson, the Democrat challenging Nunes, reports having $670 in available campaign cash as of Sept. 30. This translates to political silence. Johnson lacks the money to get his message out; even worse, he's caught in a vicious cycle. Political professionals, both with the party and with the political action committees run by unions, corporations and interest groups, generally only invest in candidates with a proven aptitude for raising money.

Costa reported having $410,873 in available campaign cash as of Sept. 30. His Republican opponent, James Lopez, had $3,076 available as of June 30.

Unlike Nunes, Costa said he will be running a "significant" number of radio and television ads.

"I just take every election seriously," Costa said. "Every two years, it's a contract with the voters, and I try to get my contract renewed."

Lopez, Costa's opponent, said Republican Party leadership told him that if he could raise several hundred thousand, it would chip in with more cash. Lopez's response: forget it. He said he'd rather run a grassroots campaign. Consequently, he said he is "walking, walking, walking, talking."

The incumbents' myriad campaign advantages include districts drawn to their respective party's specifications and the ability to serve constituents with problems like lost Social Security checks. The latter is performed by congressional staff, but it rebounds in the favor of political retention.

"We focus first and foremost on constituent service work," Nunes said.

Republicans, moreover, currently enjoy a prohibitively one-sided 47 percent to 35 percent voter registration advantage in Nunes' district. Costa, too, sits comfortably on a 51 percent to 33 percent Democratic registration advantage.