Boos and catcalls filled the cavernous banquet hall, with shouts of “Answer the question!’ and “Do your job!”
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., was under intense fire in the very Democratic-leaning central California district that elected him six months ago. Now, barely a hundred days into the volatile presidency of President Donald Trump, voters were more frustrated than ever with Washington.
It’s a frustration that Democrats are eyeing as the gateway to picking up enough seats to win control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010. Seven California Republicans, including Denham, represent districts won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year. The voter anger Denham faces has become commonplace in those districts.
Among the big demands of the town hall audience in Denair: Trump should release his tax returns. Denham’s response was to compare the request to the conspiracy theory, pressed for years by Trump himself, that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
“I’m not going to ask the previous president that I served under to show his birth certificate any more than I am going to ask this president to show his taxes,” the 49-year-old, fourth-term congressman said to more jeers from the crowd.
Denham’s district is a swath of largely Latino San Joaquin Valley. In Denham’s home Stanislaus County, Clinton beat Trump by 47.4 to 45.6 percent.
The stakes are not only huge for Denham, but also for the Republicans’ grip on the House. The seven Clinton-friendly California seats are more than a fourth of what Democrats need to win a House majority.
“If Democrats were to take the House majority back, then Denham’s would more than likely be one of those seats,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes federal races at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Most notably, Denham and other potentially vulnerable California Republicans are backing away from Trump on health care, an issue that carries a particularly big political risk in California’s Central Valley.
Some 110,000 of Denham’s constituents receive direct benefits from Obamacare, according to the consumer group Health Access California, mostly through the expansion of the Medi-Cal program for low-income Californians.
Denham has supported repealing Obamacare in the past, but until last week he refused to say whether he would vote for the Republicans’ American Health Care Act to repeal and replace it. That bill collapsed last month because of tepid GOP support, but some Republicans are trying hard to revive it.
“I’ve expressed to (Republican) leadership that I’m a ‘no’ on the health care vote until it is responsive to my community,” Denham announced at the town hall.
That didn’t satisfy the raucous crowd. About 1,000 people showed up on a drizzly weeknight to pack the Larsa Banquet Hall in small-town Denair after having to prove residency in Denham’s district to get in. Planned Parenthood passed out stickers and a handful of people wore Trump shirts and displayed a “Make America Great Again” sign. Most at the event appeared skeptical of their congressman.
Denham constantly scolded the agitated crowd, asking for a show of respect and saying over and over again, “Now, now, now. Come on now.”
“He’s more vulnerable than he’s been in the past,” said Susan Stephenson, a teacher in Modesto who does not support Denham. “The issues are more critical and people are paying more attention.”
Though Democrats have long called Denham a prime target, the Republican first elected to state office in 2002 has repeatedly shown himself a survivor. While his San Joaquin Valley colleague, Republican Rep. David Valadao, disavowed Trump last year, Denham stuck with the GOP presidential nominee in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.
Denham still won re-election by beating beekeeper Michael Eggman by 3.4 percentage points, though it was a markedly narrower victory than the 12-point margin he achieved over Eggman in 2014.
The district, covering all of Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County, is 38.8 percent registered Democratic voters and 36.4 percent registered Republicans. Many of the rural Democrats, though, tend to be relatively conservative, of the sort that long ago sparked the term “Valley Democrat.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making Denham’s district one of its 20 top targets nationwide with a full-time organizer hired as part of its “March into 18” project to unseat Republicans.
There’s a problem, though: Democrats don’t have a strong candidate committed to running against Denham at this point.
The last two Democrats to challenge him, Eggman and former astronaut Jose Hernandez in 2012, failed to catch fire despite the party’s hopes. Like many incumbents, Denham also enjoys ready access to campaign dollars. As of March 31, his campaign account had $633,391 on hand.
“One thing working in Republicans’ favor at this early point in the House races is that even the districts that look very competitive on paper, the Republicans have some pretty strong and tested incumbents and I think Denham qualifies as one of those people,” said congressional race analyst Kondik.
Denham, an Air Force veteran with a booming voice, wins praise from many in his congressional district for his moderate stance on immigration and work to secure money for a veterans’ medical facility in French Camp.
Old-timers gathered for coffee at Mr. T’s Delicate Doughnut Shop in Modesto praised Trump as the greatest thing that’s happened to the country but expressed trepidation “the left wing is so riled up” that Republicans like Denham could fall victim in the midterm elections.
Milton Richards of Turlock, a Republican whose wife is on the city council, shares the concern. Moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed in California, said Richards, who described himself as a Denham fan.
“It’s a difficult situation. California is pretty liberal,” said Richards, a retiree who’s the former athletic director at California State University Stanislaus in Turlock.
In a district where about 43 percent of the residents are counted as Hispanic or Latino, Denham has a particularly difficult challenge on immigration. He’s supported the proposed border wall with Mexico championed by Trump while backing comprehensive immigration restructuring.
He has revived in this Congress a bill he calls the ENLIST Act, which would permit immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents to enlist in the armed services and earn legal status; so far, the bill has attracted 166 co-sponsors.
Tony Rojas, a Democrat from Turlock, said Denham was failing to take action to counter Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.
“The president’s stands on immigration and deportations are going to affect the Central Valley in a horrible way,” Rojas said.
Denham emphasizes that he was the first House Republican to endorse a 2013 immigration overhaul package that included a path toward citizenship for immigrants who are currently in the United States illegally. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House.
“We have to resolve (the immigration issue) to bring people out of the shadows,” said Denham, whose wife is Latina.
Vito Chiesa, a registered Republican who chairs the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, said it made sense for Denham to support immigration revisions in an area where agriculture depends on immigrant farm labor.
“I find him to be very moderate – that doesn’t play well with his opponents, which is why they tie him to Trump,” Chiesa said “The same thing happens to any Democratic candidate: They’re called (House Democratic leader) Nancy Pelosi’s puppet.”