Central Valley Congressman Runs Against Republican He Beat in 2018 — by Less Than 1,000 Votes

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Republican David Valadao is running against Democratic incumbent TJ Cox in the race for the 21st Congressional District. (Alexandra Hall/KQED, Courtesy of TJ Cox for Congress)

Congressional District 21 is a rare swing district in California. For years, Republican Congressman David Valadao was able to win the seat, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans there. In 2016, voters still stuck with Valadao, even while choosing Democrat Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

But when Democrats flipped the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, the 21st Congressional District was one place they succeeded. Democrat TJ Cox unseated Valadao that year by less than 1,000 votes.

The Sacramento Bee mistakenly declared Republican David Valadao the winner in the 2018 midterm election.

It was so close some newspapers initially declared Valadao the winner, but after all the votes were counted Cox squeaked out a victory. It was the very last House race in the nation to be called.

Now the two are facing off again in a district that includes all of Kings County and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties.

Valadao has name recognition throughout many corners of the district, including at Overland Stock Yard in Hanford, a 40-minute drive south of Fresno. Some at a cattle auction there recently, including walnut farmer Vicki Stanfield, knew him personally.

“He’s local … Hanford ... kids went to Hanford High,” Stanfield said. “For that reason I think he would be the one I would vote for.”

Others, like Durbin Pedro, who works in the dairy industry, said he thinks Cox has done an “OK” job since coming into office, with a caveat.

“For the agricultural issues, I think he’s falling a little short,” Pedro said. “For this part of the Valley, we need somebody who’s more aggressive to get more water for our farmers and our communities.”

Congressional District 21 2018 election results, based on reporting from the Associated Press. (Matthew Green/KQED)

Valadao’s 'Trump Problem'

Even though Trump himself was not on the ballot in 2018, the president still loomed large in the midterms. And political experts say Trump and his policies likely played a role in voters’ decisions about who they wanted representing them in Congress.

In Huron, a farmworker community about 30 miles west of Hanford, the vast majority of residents are Latino.

“TJ Cox is a Democrat and, well, because I am a Democrat, I’m going to vote for him,” said Luis Enrique Gutierrez, who works at a furniture store on Huron’s main drag. The store recently started selling toilet paper and hand sanitizer in order to stay open as an essential business.

“Valadao is a Republican. He is a supporter of Trump,” Gutierrez said, adding that most voters in the area feel similarly.

“We don’t like Trump because of what he has said about us,” Gutierrez said. “Most of us are against him. If a candidate is a Democrat, the Democrats are against the Republicans who represent Donald Trump. And we are always going to be against the Republicans.”

In 2016, Valadao distanced himself from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, telling Bakersfield FOX-TV affiliate KBAK in a June 2016 phone interview that he would not support either party’s candidate for president.

“I haven’t seen or heard anything that makes me want to come out and support [either one],” Valadao said. “So I’m just staying out of the race.”

Robert Jones, general consultant and lead strategist for the David Valadao for Congress campaign, said that when the former congressman was considering candidates for president in 2016, he disagreed with Trump on certain issues, including immigration.

“[Valadao's] been a co-sponsor of the Dream Act and had a lot of concerns about the president’s rhetoric,” Jones said. “But ultimately supported his promises to deliver more water to the Central Valley and farmers.”

But this year, Valadao took a new approach.

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When Trump came to Bakersfield in February for an event where he talked about bringing more water to Central Valley farmers, the president called Valadao up on stage.

Meanwhile, in campaign ads, Valadao has portrayed himself as almost nonpartisan.

“David Valadao is different,” one television ad explained. “An independent problem solver, he worked with President Obama to bring more water to the Central Valley.”

Tom Holyoke, a political science professor at California State University Fresno, described Valadao’s situation this election as “between a rock and a hard place.”

“He needs to keep his base in that district — the hardcore Republicans and Trump supporters that have supported him in the past — he needs to keep that support and they want him to express support for the president,” Holyoke said. “But he also needs to capture some Democratic voters, something Valadao used to be pretty good at.”

Trump’s stance on immigration, and on Latinos and people of Latin American descent in general, soured many voters' opinions on Trump and the Republican Party, which became political baggage for Valadao, Holyoke said.

“A lot of voters who voted for Congressman Cox were doing so as a way to vote against the president,” Holyoke said. “Mr. Valadao ... I think he’s aware that he may have a Trump problem.”

Volunteers Recall Candidates' Troubled Histories

Both Cox and Valadao have been embroiled in personal financial controversies, and Cox has been painted as an outsider who ran unsuccessfully in another district before trying his hand in the 21st Congressional District.

“I wonder where he came from,” said Heather Oliveira, a volunteer with Valadao’s campaign for reelection.

“All of a sudden he was on the scene ... he was running in the Modesto area, I think it was, for [former U.S. Representative] Radanovich’s spot and that didn’t materialize for him, and all of a sudden he was in our district. So I just don’t consider him a voice for my people and my area."

Cathy Jorgensen, a volunteer with TJ Cox’s reelection campaign and chair of the Democratic Central Committee in Kings County, said the outcome of the 2016 presidential election spurred local volunteers into action.

Jorgensen said organizers felt then-Congressman Valadao didn’t listen to them when they urged him not to vote in support of repealing the Affordable Care Act. And that energy has carried into this year’s election, Jorgensen said.

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“We have many people who are extremely motivated because of who is in the White House right now,” Jorgensen said. “When Valadao was in Congress, he did vote with the president 99% of the time, and people are remembering that. They are remembering that he was basically touting the party line instead of doing what was best for constituents.”

According to Paul Mitchell, Vice President of Political Data, Inc., a bipartisan voter information company, Democratic voter registration has gone up in the district, with one spike ahead of the primary. But that increase does not guarantee Cox will win again in November.

“There are people who are Democratic because of, maybe they’re a union member. Maybe they have just always been Democratic,” Mitchell said. “But being Democratic doesn’t mean that you’re for AOC and the Green New Deal when you’re living in the Central Valley.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists the 21st district as one of two congressional districts in the state rated as "toss ups," meaning it will help determine whether Democrats can hold onto their majority.

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