WASHINGTON — Republican strategists are now roughing up San Joaquin Valley congressional Democrats with radio ads linking them to the region's water woes.
In an aggressive new tack, the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday began running a 60-second radio ad attacking Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno. The ad running throughout the week links the two Democrats to systemic irrigation water shortages.
"Cardoza and Costa can't persuade Democrat leaders to change radical environmental laws," the ad intones. "So while the congressmen fail ... the Valley goes dry."
Politically, the ad's consequences may be hard to track, as the next election is still 17 months away. Both incumbents represent districts expressly drawn for Democratic dominance, and neither has attracted a strong Republican challenger in the past.
Factually, the ad omits some crucial context.
The primary law being referred to is the Endangered Species Act, signed in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. Federal judges including U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, have been ordering water diversions for the sake of species protected by the law.
Conservative efforts during the 1990s to revise the 1973 law, led by then-congressman Richard Pombo of Tracy, collapsed in large part because of resistance from GOP moderates.
Representing rural districts, with farmers and developers among their regular campaign contributors, Costa and Cardoza have been consistently critical of the current Endangered Species Act.
The two Valley Democrats have also aligned themselves with Valley Republicans on water-related votes and championed myriad water projects.
"I don't believe anyone has done more to advocate the water issue than I have for the past 25 years," Costa said Wednesday.
Cardoza added that the ad was "unmitigated baloney" and said, "We need cool heads to prevail and a whole lot less partisan rhetoric."
Among political strategists, though, attack ads are sometimes employed not to defeat an incumbent or push a policy but primarily to keep the lawmaker on the defensive.
Two weeks ago, Costa and Cardoza were among 37 House Democrats voting for an unsuccessful amendment that would have blocked a federal decision steering more irrigation water toward animal protection.
The decision issued earlier this month by the National Marine Fisheries Service will cut urban and irrigation water deliveries by between 5 percent and 7 percent in order to protect salmon. Wanger had ordered the agency to prepare its revised "biological opinion" after concluding that a 2004 decision was inadequate.
"When will this stop? When our valley has no more water left for its farmers and its farm workers?" Costa declared during the June 17 House debate, adding that "this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. "
The author of the California water amendment, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, blasted House Democratic leaders for "destroying the economy of the San Joaquin Valley," and he frequently favors the term "radical environmentalists." Nunes, nonetheless, stressed that Costa and Cardoza are "trying their best to deal with their leadership to try to bring some attention to this problem."
Cardoza is a member of the Democratic leadership-controlled House Rules Committee, which is the gatekeeper for House floor amendments. At Cardoza's urging, the panel allowed a vote on the Nunes amendment. A week later, the committee with Cardoza dissenting denied Nunes a chance to offer his water amendment again.
A Republican campaign committee spokeswoman declined to specify the amount of money spent on the new radio ad or how often it will be aired. Democrats say their understanding is that the ad is running on a Fresno station at an estimated cost of about $3,000.