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Climate Voters Grapple With Ethical Dilemma in California's District 13 Race

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Sebastian Cervantes, an organizer in the Central Valley, stands in Merced, California, on May 8, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Central Valley resident Sebastian Cervantes is all too familiar with flooded homes, bone-dry earth and amber-tinted, smoke-filled skies.

“Climate is a huge issue, not just for me but for everyone in the Central Valley,” he said.

Cervantes typically votes for candidates with solid climate agendas because he’s “lived through and experienced” climate disasters in California.

But this year, he’s willing to put his climate advocacy aside. Cervantes said he can’t ethically vote for candidates this election cycle who support or aid Israel’s war in Gaza. He plans to abstain from voting.


“These politicians don’t care about us or the climate; they mostly care about their profit and motives,” he said. “If they want to continue the status quo, then we’ll just say we don’t want you.”

The 27-year-old lives in Atwater, a city in Merced County and California’s U.S. House District 13. The primarily rural district extends south of Stockton and to the edge of Fresno. Merced is one of its most populous cities, even with a population of fewer than 100,000 people.

A sign says, ‘Old Town Atwater’ in Atwater, Merced County, in the Central Valley on May 8, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The race for District 13 is one of the tightest in the country and could help decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2022, Republican John Duarte defeated Democrat Adam Gray by fewer than 600 votes, and the two candidates will face off again in November.

The effects of climate are among the top issues voters here care about, said Lisa García Bedolla, UC Berkeley’s vice provost for graduate studies. Last summer, she polled over 300 District 13 registered voters about their top concerns.

But election experts said growing dissent over U.S. support of Israel’s war may dip congressional races toward conservative candidates.

Democrats will need progressives like Cervantes to win, and these voters would typically support President Joe Biden and his party because of their climate policies, which include passing the biggest climate law in U.S. history: the Inflation Reduction Act. Former President Donald Trump has pledged to reverse that and declined to acknowledge the role climate change played in fueling California’s megafires while visiting the state during the fire storms of 2020.

Standing water pools on a street corner in Planada, Merced County, on May 8, 2024, in an area of the town that flooded in 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But these voters are so disillusioned with the U.S. and its financial support of Israel, which is in its eighth month of a siege of Gaza, that they might sit out this election altogether. “Our taxes are being spent on bombs and advanced military equipment to help Israeli soldiers continue displacing Palestinians,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes voted for Democrat Adam Gray in 2022 and said he might reconsider abstaining this year if Gray denounced U.S. support of Israel and called for a cease-fire. Gray did not respond to KQED for comment — and Duarte declined.

Voters like Cervantes are making their voices heard on college campuses across the country, pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza and asking colleges to divest from companies working with Israel’s military.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israeli forces have killed over 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Israel’s attacks have displaced some 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, and the United Nations has rung the alarm about a possible famine in northern Gaza.

The war in Gaza is based on a decades-long conflict.

‘A microcosm for that broader national contest’

Mark Baldassare, statewide survey director for the Public Policy Institute of California, said while Cervantes’ views might feel anecdotal, protests on university campuses nationwide should cause candidates to worry come November.

“People who say they feel their vote doesn’t count have to be taken seriously,” he said. There’s every reason to believe that District 13 is going to be one of the closest House races in the country.”

Sebastian Cervantes holds a photo on his phone from a pro-Palestinian rally he attended in Yosemite National Park on May 8, 2024, in Merced, Merced County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In a February poll, Baldassare found that more than 6 in 10 Californians would support Israel and Hamas agreeing to a cease-fire now. He said that global or foreign affairs usually don’t play a prominent role in people’s voting choices, but that could change this year.

Candidates have six months to convince Californians in critical races to vote. Baldassare said there’s still time for an issue like climate change to surface that could persuade them to vote.

Baldassare will release new environment and climate-centered polling in late July but said previous polling shows “there’s a core group of” voters who want elected officials “to deal with climate change.”

Baldassare said Democrats winning District 13 is essential for their hope of controlling the house in 2025. So, clear messaging from candidates on climate change and their stances on U.S. aid for Israel’s war is crucial this election cycle.

“[These issues are] what’s going to be on their minds when they’re thinking about who they’re going to vote for and whether they’re going to vote in November,” he said.

Sebastian Cervantes speaks with members of We’Ced Youth Media, a Youth Leadership Institute project that teaches young people journalism and advocacy skills, in Merced, on May 8, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eric Schickler, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said that in an election year, congressional candidates often lean on messaging from presidential candidates to convince people to turn out to the polls. He said progressives would likely argue that another term of former President Trump would be detrimental to climate progress, abortion rights and immigration.

“The Democrats’ nightmare is having a repeat of what happened last time where low turnout in these solidly blue states allowed Republicans to capture a number of seats,” he said. “District 13 is basically a microcosm for that broader national contest.”

But Schickler said people’s unrest over America’s support of Israel could keep voters home in November.

“The contest in District 13 is, in a lot of ways, a bellwether for this larger national battle for the majority in the House of Representatives, which is going to play a key role in shaping our politics, no matter whether Trump or Biden wins in 2024,” he said.

The Central Valley race

Some on the left are alarmed by the potential for progressive voters to sit out. Battleground California, a new super PAC, said it will invest $15 million to target races, including District 13, where Latino, AAPI and Black voters could make the “difference towards a Democratic-controlled Congress.” The group will also target young voters who care about policies to mitigate human-caused climate change.

“Climate change for young voters, especially Latino voters, is increasingly becoming a litmus test for them to tell the good guys from the bad guy,” said Pablo Rodriguez, founding executive director of Communities for a New California, one of the groups behind the super PAC.

A sticker says, ‘Voter’ on a filing cabinet at the offices for We’Ced Youth Media, a Youth Leadership Institute project that teaches young people journalism and advocacy skills, in Merced, on May 8, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Their big push is to get out the vote in November. According to the group’s internal data, District 13 has more than 140,000 registered Democrats and 94,000 Republicans, with nearly 90,000 Independents. But in 2022, only 32% of eligible voters cast a ballot and 275,000 people didn’t vote.

Rodriguez said the super PACs will flood the district with organizers who will listen to voters. He added that national candidates might want to dismiss the views of young protesters pushing for divestment from fossil fuels or against U.S. aid for Israel, “but we have to remind them again that all they’re asking for is transparency from the government.”

Rodriguez said that whichever party does a better job of listening to young people and those not affiliated with a party will be able to win the slim margin of voters needed in races like District 13.

Signs for Democratic state Assembly member and congressional candidate Adam Gray line a storefront in Merced, on May 8, 2024. Gray will face off against Republican Congressional newcomer John Duarte for California’s US House District 13, which includes Merced, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The coalition plans to focus on the 3.2 million Latina voters across the state, who they think are more likely to vote than Latino men. Of Latino voters in California, 52% said they support a cease-fire, the highest among the four recorded racial or ethnic groups, according to the PPIC.

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“If you want to address these issues, you should focus on the issues important to Latina women as the path toward victory,” Rodriguez said. 

Many people of color in District 13 don’t feel like candidates care about their daily struggles — which include the hardships brought about by the effects of climate change — and, in turn, stay home on election day, UC Berkeley’s García Bedolla said.

“We can’t have a healthy democracy in California or the country if you have a subset of the population that is fundamentally disengaged,” she said. “They just don’t feel like their votes will make a difference. Latino voters are not on candidates’ radar because they don’t fit the parameters that they’ve set up.”

Ileana Juárez, 19, said she will vote by mail for Democrat Adam Gray in District 13.

“I’m tired of being ignored in the Central Valley,” she said.

The biology student at UC Santa Barbara said she is concerned about how climate change is altering life in her hometown of Livingston and about the U.S. aiding Israel but cannot “ethically stand by and not vote.”

“There are more issues at play than just Gaza and climate change,” she said. “Those are very important issues that we should be focusing on, but this election is definitely multifaceted.”

KQED reporter Nisa Khan contributed reporting for this story.


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