Shutdown vote may take political toll in California

California freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, is seen in his office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. July 21, 2011.
California freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, is seen in his office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. July 21, 2011. MCT

The political fallout from the federal government shutdown will be tested in California’s Northern San Joaquin Valley next year, when Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock faces voters once more.

Denham voted against the bill Wednesday that reopened the government and avoided a default. He also represents a potentially competitive district, whose residents backed President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a 50-47 percent margin in 2012.

Now, amid national polling that shows Republicans suffered as a result of the 16-day shutdown, Denham has the next 13 months to make his case in his hometown that he did the right thing.

“I’ve got an opportunity to vote my conscience and vote my district,” Denham said, “and that’s what I did.”

Denham joined 143 other House Republicans, a majority of the GOP caucus, in opposing the bill that funds the government through Jan. 15 and extends the federal debt limit through Feb. 7. But unlike many House Republicans nationwide who have been gerrymandered into safely conservative districts, Denham represents a district where Democrats conceivably have a shot.

Three other California House Republicans represent districts carried by Obama in 2012: Reps. David Valadao of Hanford, Gary Miller of Rancho Cucamonga and Darrell Issa of Vista. All three voted for the bill to reopen the government.

“This has to end,” Valadao said of the shutdown, shortly before voting.

Valadao, like Denham, represents a Valley district that Democrats dream of taking back in 2014. But it’s difficult to determine how much the shutdown vote will influence reelection chances for two colleagues who ended up on opposite sides of the vote. Other factors – outside money, the quality of an opponent, national trends and intervening events – can also all help shape the political significance of a single vote.

Valadao, so far, has the higher profile opponent in Amanda Renteria, a Stanford and Harvard Business School graduate and former Senate staffer who is seeking the Democratic nomination. Renteria has said it was “terribly irresponsible” for Valadao to be “part” of the shutdown.

In Denham’s district, Democrat Michael Eggman, an almond farmer, beekeeper and political novice, is seeking the nomination to unseat the incumbent. He blasted Denham for putting “ideology before our economy [and] politics before the people of this valley.”

Denham, while acknowledging that “I don’t think there’s any winner in this,” insisted the real test will be “over the next two months” as House and Senate negotiators seek a comprehensive budget deal. The bill approved Wednesday sets up the framework for the kind of formal budget negotiations that have not taken place in recent years. Though many are skeptical about the prospects, Denham said a lasting deal will be remembered more than the Wednesday vote.

“I think people are going to focus on results,” Denham said.

For now, the focus seems bleak for Republicans overall, with 53 percent of Americans surveyed in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Oct. 10 blaming Republicans for the government shutdown, and only 24 percent expressing a favorable opinion about the GOP. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed blamed President Barack Obama for the shutdown. A separate Washington Post/ABC News polls released Oct. 14 found that 74 percent of Americans surveyed disapproved of how the Republicans were handling the negotiations.

Denham spreads the blame more broadly.

“It’s been irresponsible behavior by both parties, by both the House and the Senate, and by the president,” Denham said.

House Republicans, driven by tea party members and the exhortations of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, originally cast the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown as leverage in their efforts to curtail the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. How this shutdown history is remembered will also help shape the political consequences.

“This is an opportunity when you find that Obamacare is not going to work, to delay it,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield explained on Fox News Sunday on Sept. 29, the eve of the shutdown.

On Oct. 3, Denham picked up the theme, saying that a bill to reopen the federal government should be paired with provisions delaying or changing the Affordable Care Act. Now, though, Denham says his major focus all along was to ensure Congress seriously tackles the federal debt estimated at about $17 trillion, and he said the deal struck Wednesday did not do enough toward that end.

“Seventeen trillion dollars is unsustainable,” Denham said. “That’s not debt I want to pass on to my kids or grandkids.”

Beyond a potential budget deal, Denham said, the sour aftertaste from the government shutdown may be alleviated by progress on other issues. Denham has allied himself with some Democrats in seeking a broad immigration bill, and he is a negotiator on a long-stalled farm bill. He is also, like other lawmakers, heading home to talk to his constituents at town hall meetings.

“I’m going to face the voters,” Denham said, “and explain why I voted the way I did.”

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