Politics & Government

Central California Democrats uncertain their seats are safe

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley congressional Democrats confront a political headwind as they try to hold onto their House seats.

By any measure, Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno remain favorites to win re-election. But with Democratic prospects seemingly growing bleaker nationwide, even longtime incumbents could be unsettled.

"There is a frustration with the Obama administration and the leadership of the speaker," Costa conceded, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. But "for Dennis and I, this is not our first rodeo. We have a proven history of getting things done."

Another Democrat who represents part of the Valley, Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, is caught in what some political analysts consider a true toss-up.

Republicans need to win 39 additional seats to control the House of Representatives. The party currently has a "good chance" to win at least 47 additional seats, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says.

"Costa and Cardoza are both in trouble," insisted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I think they have a lot of bad votes out there that they have to explain."

Nunes put his two Valley colleagues "in the second tier of races." By the GOP calculus, this means they are not among the most likely pickup opportunities, but they could be in play if a Republican wave sweeps nationwide in November.

Neutral political analysts agree. Charlie Cook, one widely followed analyst, identifies Costa's 20th Congressional District as leaning Democratic and Cardoza's 18th Congressional District as likely Democratic. Nearly every other House Democrat in California is rated as having a safe seat this year.

"We're in the same party as some people that (certain voters) don't like," Cardoza said. "Are people frustrated? You bet they are. ... But I'm working the district the way I always have."

The campaign assessments matter and can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Political professionals will shun lost causes, but they'll invest when they see a possibility of winning. The National Republican Congressional Committee is still monitoring the Costa and Cardoza races but has yet to chip in campaign cash.

That is of no concern, insists Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, the Republican political neophyte who is challenging Costa.

"I'm telling you we're a hot ticket, and whether (the NRCC) help me or not, we're going to win," Vidak said.

By contrast, the party has recently spent money on television advertisements attacking McNerney, who represents part of San Joaquin County. Cook counts McNerney's 11th Congressional District as the state's one true toss-up, with Republican and Democrat voters registered in roughly equal numbers.

Cardoza's Republican opponent, Mike Berryhill, acknowledged he has an uphill battle, but he feels he's running at the right time, when voters are angry at incumbents.

"I see it as a good 50-50," Berryhill said of his chances.

Berryhill was able to land the farm bureau endorsement in Cardoza's own Merced County. Coalinga-area rancher John Harris, Corcoran-area farmer Fred Salyer and Fresno County farmer Stuart Woolf, who have backed Costa in the past, all contributed this year to Vidak.

"He's just been unable to create change in the Democratic Party's approach to our water needs," Harris said of Costa.

The incumbents strive to show they remain in touch with voters, even as their opponents paint them as out of touch. The incumbents, for instance, underscore how often they fly back to their districts for weekend work.

"The American public is very concerned and frustrated about their problems being addressed, and I get that frustration," Costa said.

Costa and Cardoza enjoy the advantages of incumbency, superior fundraising and districts drawn for Democrats. Cardoza also has the advantage of seeing Berryhill's campaign sundered by some internal turmoil, with one of Berryhill's former campaign managers now blasting the GOP candidate.

McNerney has the incumbent's traditional advantages but represents a district with a larger GOP base than his Valley colleagues.

Cardoza reported having $575,243 available and no campaign debts as of June 30. Berryhill reported having $131,385 available and debts of $240,000. Berryhill has repeatedly loaned his campaign money and then rapidly paid it back.

Costa reported having $336,886 and no debts as of June 30. Vidak reported having $48,097 and debts of $19,983.

McNerney had $1.2 million available and debts of $21,603. His Republican opponent, David Harmer, had $233,046 available and debts of $31,843.