Rep. Jeff Denham’s closing argument in his fight for political survival is all about water — and mostly pretending that President Donald Trump doesn’t exist.
While Democratic opponent Josh Harder — like so many other Democrats vying to win Republican-held house seats — tries to bind Denham to Trump while also emphasizing health care issues, Denham is battling back by going local and trying to convince voters that Harder isn’t local.
Trump is staying far away from the district. Even when signing a memo focused on Central Valley water policy on Oct. 19, Trump flew in Denham and others to sign the bill in Arizona.
Water matters a lot in California’s 10th congressional district, where water-dependent agriculture makes up a substantial part of the local economy and a State Water Board is threatening to siphon off some of its supply in a vote the day after the election.
California’s Central Valley is constantly at risk of not having enough water, if it isn’t experiencing an all-out drought. Farmers in Denham’s district consistently worry whether they’ll have enough to grow their crops as environmentalists accuse them of using too much of the state’s water resources.
“Pollsters across the country have it wrong. This isn’t a blue wave or a red wave, it’s a Valley wave,” Denham said. “It’s us against those people trying to take our water.”
Denham’s race will be a key test of how much momentum the so-called blue wave can gather, as Democrats and Trump try to make the election a referendum on the president. The district went to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by three points in 2016 as Denham won by three points.
Trump isn’t popular in the district — even among Republicans — and that’s likely to drag Denham down, but the congressman thinks he has the edge on local issues.
“The foundation of this race is Donald Trump, even though he’s rarely mentioned,” said Mike Lynch, a Democratic political strategist in the district who said he’s received 37 mailers about the House race so far. “But this is also an area where local issues are at the tops of people’s minds, because it’s underserved.”
Like nearly all Democrats nationwide, the higher the turnout, the better Harder’s prospects are presumed to be. Early voting numbers are significantly higher than the primary, when Republican candidates earned 52 percent of the vote to Democrats’ 48 percent.
Carol Whiteside, a former Republican political strategist in the district who changed her party affiliation in 2016, said voter turnout might be dampened by too much campaigning.
“Democrats keep saying it will be a big turnout, but people are tired of the race and the back and forth,” Whiteside said. “We’re getting one or two mailers per day lately. It could backfire on them.”
Democrats make up 37.4 percent of voters in the district to Republicans’ 34.1 percent, according to Political Data Inc., a California firm that collects such statistics.
The remaining 28.5 percent are mostly voters who declared no party preference, and polls have shown Trump’s approval rating among California independent voters in the high 20s. Latinos, who also have low approval ratings of Trump and tend to vote Democrat, make up 30 percent of registered voters.
But Denham has a reliable voting population of farmers lined up behind him that he’s been working to keep, constantly touting his work on getting more water storage in the district.
He appeared with Trump as the president signed the memorandum to speed up environmental impact reviews on dams, though such a memo won’t have much power on its own. The signing was widely considered a political move to help Valley Republicans.
Many farmers in the area who disdain Trump have lined up solidly behind Denham, partially because of his history of focus on water and his identification as a farmer. He used to grow almonds but now leases his farmland. Even the unpopular tariffs imposed by Trump that hurt farmers’ profits haven’t motivated many to switch their votes.
“There’s an intensity on the water issue here that I don’t know if you see in other areas’ local issues,” Lynch said. “It would be hard for anyone to break into that against Denham in a significant way.”
The most omnipresent threat to the Central Valley’s water resources is currently the Bay Delta Plan. The State Water Board postponed a vote on the proposal until the day after Election Day. It would direct substantial flows currently going into the Valley into the ocean, purportedly to save salmon populations. Denham has battled to block that plan at the federal level, with no success so far.
Denham has also helped pass congressional legislation to loan federal money to build needed water storage in the San Joaquin Valley. While plans for more water storage have already been lagging for decades, it will likely take years before that storage will be built or available for use.
Aiding the water initiative in the campaign is a message Denham’s troops have drummed into constituent minds repeatedly about Harder: Calling him a “Bay Area liberal,” because of his time living there.
While Republicans across the country have tried to tie Democratic opponents to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents a San Francisco-based district, that criticism has additional weight in the Central Valley, where many have an us vs. them mentality about San Francisco and how the city takes the Valley’s water.
Harder grew up in Turlock but went to college at Stanford University and spent much of his adult life working for a venture capitalist firm in the Bay Area, though he was only based in San Francisco for seven months.
Though Harder insists he’ll have support on the water issue too, local political strategists say he’s unlikely to get it. While Harder has taken the popular positions on water issues in the area — such as opposing the Bay Delta Plan — Denham has done the same. Unlike Harder, Denham has a record to support his positions.
Without the agriculture community, Harder’s base is still slightly larger in the district — but less reliable.
Harder has been working to drum up Democrats’ support by focusing on health care. The district has a higher than normal level of pre-existing conditions, as well as a large low-income population that depends on Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid.
Harder said people in the district will feel their vote matters more this time around because he’d push to assure insurers could not reject someone because of pre-existing conditions.
“The district is split on Trump, but it’s united on affordable health care,” said Harder, who has a Medicare-for-all health care platform.
Harder’s chances at overthrowing Denham lie with Hispanics and independent voters, and on-the-ground canvassing work by Democratic groups has been intense. Latinos tend to not have high voter turnout — though Democratic groups have been trying desperately to change that — and those who don’t declare a party affiliation are impossible to call in the 10th district, Lynch and other strategists agreed.
“On the West Coast, you can count on most of those votes to lean Democrat,” Lynch said. “Here they’re actually more independent — they’re Democrats on social issues and Republicans on fiscal issues, or some of them are vice versa.”
“They’re the key vote,” Lynch said. “And it’s a coin toss.”