This district went to Clinton by 16 points. But the GOP isn’t worried about losing it

Democrats face hurdles in quest to reclaim the House and Senate

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.
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After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

Republicans aren’t worried about Rep. David Valadao, a California House incumbent who fits all the stereotypical tells for being highly at risk in November.

Democrats in the district blame lackluster Democratic candidates who haven’t connected with voters, Valadao’s last name (he’s Portuguese), and his ability to seem like a moderate, even if Democrats and the bills he takes part in passing say otherwise.

And then there’s the age-old, biggest political benefit: Voters say it’s hard to dislike him.

“I hate to say it, but he actually does an excellent job of coming across as a moderate Democrat,” said Doug Kessler, a former regional director for the California Democratic Party. “He comes off as a friendly, ‘I’m one of you,’ type person.”

The district, a more than 100-mile long stretch from south Fresno down to Bakersfield through dry San Joaquin Valley farmland, went to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016.

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

The district is nearly 70 percent Hispanic and the Latino population makes up nearly 60 percent of registered voters in 2018, according to Political Data Inc. Among districts with minority majorities, it’s one of only a handful in the country that is represented by a Republican.

But Valadao has consistently won by double digits, even in 2016 when Democrats predicted President Donald Trump would dilute the vote for Republicans in districts with high Hispanic populations. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political analyst group, doesn’t even include the race as one to watch in 2018.

The key for Democrats in the district, Democrats say, is turning out the Latino and independent vote. But to do that, they need a candidate those people are enthusiastic about.

While some Democrats have high hopes for TJ Cox, this year’s Democratic candidate, there are serious doubts that he’ll be able to bring the blue wave to California’s 21st district.

Holly Blair, a Latina council member in Lemoore who calls herself a partisan Democrat, said she would be voting for Cox due to health care issues — but she’s not enthusiastic about it, and parts of the campaign have “pissed me off.”

“David is from Hanford, from the community, and he goes to community events,” Blair said. “You see him at football games and Easter egg hunts, not for photos. He’s genuinely involved here, and that’s how you know the needs of the community.”

Cox does not strike people the same way, Blair said. In what was largely considered a bad first move, Cox originally started running against Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in 2017. He then pulled out of that crowded primary field to run against Valadao, where he became the only challenger in the primary.

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“That hurt him more than anything,” said Kessler, who has worked with Cox’s campaign. “He was late getting in and late getting the people.”

It reinforced a tenacious perception that many Democrats have faced in the district, Blair said: That they don’t care to represent the district, but are just looking to be in office. That’s a “party problem, not a TJ problem,” Kessler said.

Phillip Vander Klay, spokesman for Cox’s campaign, said while the perception about Cox is there, it’s not accurate.

“TJ has proudly lived, worked and raised his family in the Valley for 20 years,” Vander Klay said. Cox’s home is just outside the current district boundary in Fresno, and he owns and operates businesses in the area. He rented a home in the 10th district when he was planning to run there, but no longer does so. He also owns a home in Maryland.

There’s also frustration over Cox not speaking Spanish, which Blair said was “absolutely essential” for candidates in the district. Valadao speaks fluent Spanish.

Many also wondered if Cox was stumping enough throughout the district. Blair said her home in Lemoore has had four knocks on the door from Republicans and none from Democrats the entire election cycle. Kessler said Cox has reached out to parts of the district but hadn’t been doing much in Kings County, which is regarded as “Valadao country.”

Tom Bohigian, retired state director for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and a former Fresno city councilman, said he thought Cox was doing better now, but still didn’t know if he’d built enough name recognition.

“When I ran for council, I never forgot that I had to be walking my precincts and talking to my district,” Bohigian said. “You can have a lot of money, but if you’re not doing that in this district it makes it hard to win. You can’t write a check for $10 million, go on TV and call it a day.”

Democrats begrudgingly admit that even though his dairy farm earns him more than $6 million in income per year, according to his latest financial disclosure, Valadao knows how to connect with everyday voters..

“You won’t usually see him in a suit and tie or standing next to Trump,” Kessler said.

They contend Valadao isn’t actually moderate, as most of the legislation he touts as proof of working across the aisle hasn’t passed, such as immigration reforms to give a path to citizenship to young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. But they know it is a widely held belief in the district and don’t know if Democrats are doing enough to change that.

Television ads against Valadao in the district repeatedly try to tie him to Trump and his party-line health care votes over the years.

Valadao has voted with Trump’s position 99 percent of the time on major legislation that came to the House floor in 2017 and 2018, only opposing him when voting to impose tariffs on Russia, Iran and North Korea.

But more than anything, Blair and others said there’s a consistent frustration with the Democratic Party in California’s 21st, where the party insists the same tactics that might work in urban districts don’t cut it.

“They want us to settle with whatever candidate comes in, and they always say they need the ones who can raise the money,” Blair said, noting that excludes a lot of people in an impoverished district. “But I don’t see that strategy working in small, rural communities.”

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby