The Swap in California

By Jim Ellis

March 7, 2018 — The California candidate filing deadline is Friday, and we are beginning to see some complicated political moves crystallize as we get closer to final decision time.

California candidate T.J. Cox (D)

California candidate T.J. Cox (D)

In the state’s Central Valley, a major Democratic shake-up is unfolding. On Sunday, Emilio Huerta, the 2016 Democratic nominee against Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford/Bakersfield) in California’s 21st Congressional District, announced that he is dropping his 2018 bid. The surprise announcement appears linked to Democratic leaders wanting to move 10th District candidate T.J. Cox (D) south so he can become Rep. Valadao’s general election opponent.

Months ago, Cox, a businessman and investment fund founder, announced his candidacy against Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock/Modesto) in CA-10. Democrat leaders were positive about his candidacy at the time because they were reportedly less than satisfied with two-time nominee Michael Eggman, a wealthy farmer who lost to Denham in both 2014 (56-44 percent) and 2016 (52-48 percent).

As is the case in many districts around the country, large numbers of Democrat aspirants began declaring their candidacies for the 10th District race. Last year, it appeared the party establishment was lining up behind Cox, especially when Eggman announced that he would not run for a third time. In late January, however, Eggman suddenly changed his mind, did an about-face, and declared his congressional candidacy once again. Knowing that the former nominee’s name ID would likely land him the second qualifying position in the June 5 jungle primary because a total of seven Democrats were headed toward securing positions on the ballot, the party leaders began scrambling to fortify a better candidate lineup.

In the Valadao seat, a large rural district that captures a major number of Bakersfield city precincts in Kern County, in addition to all of Kings and significant portions of Fresno and Tulare counties, and originally designed to elect a Democrat, Huerta had again declared himself a candidate.

Emilio Huerta is the son of Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez that later became the United Farmworkers Union. Though he has a strong pedigree for a Democratic candidate in this particular agricultural region, Huerta was a major disappointment as a candidate two years ago, falling 57-43 percent against Rep. Valadao in the third-most Democratic district in the nation to elect a Republican to Congress. Hillary Clinton carried the 21st District with a 55-40 percent margin spread, in comparison.

Valado has run strong here in his three successful congressional campaigns as well as one for the state Assembly despite the Democratic nature of the electorate (Democrats have a 46-29 percent voter registration edge). Cox’s move is more complicated than meets the eye, however, and will allow Rep. Valadao to exploit some new negatives. Here’s how it shakes out:

  • First, Cox’s campaign and all his materials were geared specifically against Rep. Denham, and it was clear that the Democrat’s strategy is to create a negative image of the Modesto area congressman. Now, switching to a different district will allow Valadao to show that Cox frivolously uses the same attacks against both members as interchangeable parts. Such an attack will be even more difficult to neutralize for a candidate who has bounced from district to district in an attempt to win a congressional seat. In addition to the 2018 swap, Cox was the Democratic nominee against then-Rep. George Radanovich (R-Fresno) back in 2006 from the former 19th District, where he lost 61-39 percent.
  • Secondly, Cox hails from Modesto, which is the anchor city in the 10th District. Moving to the 21st District is no small jump, and not like hopping between suburban political districts in a metropolitan area. Modesto is over 200 miles from the anchor city in the 21st, Bakersfield, and is in many ways a distinctly different region.
  • Third, Cox’s fundraising so far has been acceptable, but less than expected. Through the end of 2017, he raised just about $409,000 with slightly less than $280,000 remaining in his campaign account. This is a significant under-performance based upon what other Democratic candidates around the country are reaping.

The Cox move adds even more intrigue to the California political situation. At the present time, both Republican incumbents Denham and Valadao look to be benefiting from these unanticipated moves. Rep. Denham sees a potentially strong challenger depart, and will now almost assuredly draw the man he has already defeated in two other elections. Rep. Valadao gets a new opponent with major flaws while seeing one with a strong local legacy depart.

California will become a major battleground in the 2018 House majority war, and these recent curious moves in the state’s agricultural belt serves as a prelude for what can be expected in a series of raucous Golden State congressional campaigns.

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