As it stands now, two Central Valley Republicans -- U.S. Rep. David Valadao and State Sen. Andy Vidak -- are in good positions to win re-election to their respective legislative seats. They have made some key centrist votes on immigration and have stayed away from being labeled as part of the "far right" in their Democrat-voter-rich districts.
Valadao was one of only three Republicans who co-sponsored the House of Representatives' version of a bipartisan immigration bill the Senate approved last June. This bill's provisions include a pathway for citizenship (amnesty with penalties) for undocumented immigrants. As for Vidak, he supported a bill permitting California's undocumented to receive driver's licenses.
Both of these districts are heavily Latino. The Latino population in Valadao's 21st Congressional district, for example, is about 73 percent. But these districts have seen a recent drop in Democratic registration advantages where Vidak is facing a 16-percent Democratic edge -- compared to the 22-percent in the special election he won with nearly 52 percent of the vote last year. (This year, Vidak will defend his seat in the newly drawn and numbered 14th State Senate district.) Valadao is up against a 14-percent Democratic spread. Independents and others (i.e., 21.9 percent in Valadao's district) represent a significant percentage of voters in both districts.
Some political observers view House Speaker John Boehner's decision to abandon immigration reform two days after he announced his caucus' "principles" for a potential road map to legislation may hurt lawmakers like Valadao. But Claremont McKenna College professor and political expert Jack Pitney recently told the Los Angeles Times: "On immigration, the leaders are asking them to take one for the team ... even so, members of Congress are judged on their own positions, not of party leaders." Pitney makes sense, as all politics tends to be local.
Valadao's chief opponent, according to press accounts, is Democrat Amanda Renteria, a Washington, D.C., insider and party favorite who has raised over $330,000. Yet a national Republican poll says she trails Valadao's 2012 opponent, Democrat John Hernandez, who will also be on this year's primary ballot. Renteria is little known in this congressional district.
If this poll is accurate, and the Renteria folks claim otherwise, she will need to develop some quick name recognition or voter identification to make the general election in November. A divisive primary battle between two Democrats will drain financial resources, and this would help Valadao. He won with 59 percent of the vote in 2012, and he'll have no problem raising money. He also has the power of incumbency and has a knack for sending out professional campaign mailers. The 21st Congressional district is definitely leaning Republican, and the GOP will go all out for Valadao. His campaign is being managed by the respected Fresno political consultant Tim Orman, who has made recent political inroads in managing Kern County campaigns including Vidak's upset win last year and Valadao's victory the year before.
Vidak may have only one Democrat challenging him in the primary. Some Kern County Democratic activists recently pushed Bakersfield City School District Board member Andrae Gonzales for state Democrats to rally behind; however, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, would have nothing to do with the effort. State Dems are throwing their support instead behind Fresno school board member Luis Chavez. Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, another potential Vidak opponent, has dropped out of the race. This would give voters in Vidak's district a clear choice between an incumbent and a political newcomer who is unknown in most of the district.
Watch the numerous Independent Expenditure Committee mailers flood voter mailboxes in the those districts, as this was key for Vidak last year. Those mailers supporting Vidak far outnumbered those for Democratic candidate Leticia Perez and were designed more effectively. One campaign mailer foolishly slammed Vidak for not supporting gun control, an urban issue that does not play well here in the southern part of the valley. Those independent mailers will hit Renteria non-stop for taking most of her money from the Beltway.
Democratic operatives in these districts are banking on huge voter registration drives for new voters, which they hope will boost Renteria's and Chavez's chances. Voter registration is an important campaign strategy, but such efforts are also expensive and time-consuming. The downside is that these new voters may end up not voting at election time. It's a gamble, to be sure.
Another factor in these races: Far more congressional seats nationwide and in California held by Democrats are rated as vulnerable than seats now held by Republicans. The only weak congressional Republican is Gary Miller of Rancho Cucamonga. But Miller recently announced his retirement, and Republicans will now divert the money they were going to spend on him to other races -- such as Valadao's -- that have better prospects.
By the same token, will national Democrats dump the much-needed "big money" into Renteria's campaign coffers when they face four toss-up incumbent seats in California? They will have their hands full protecting these seats from going Republican. In fact, national Democrats have started shifting their funding to the Senate, where they hope to keep it majority Democrat. This spells unwelcome news for Renteria.
California's drought will also be a key campaign issue in both of these races. Agriculture is king in the Central Valley, and Valadao and Vidak will likely be seen as showing leadership in trying to bring more water to their districts' parched farmland and dairy pastures. People are deeply concerned about possible water rationing and higher food prices. Valadao, along with valley congressmen Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, authored drought legislation for California, which recently passed in the House. Just trying to do what's good for California by fighting the drought may become fertile political ground for the GOP.
Recently, Californian staff writer James Burger quoted respected state political observer Tony Quinn, who said conservative firebrand and California gubernatorial candidate Assemblyman Tim Donnelly may become a drag on the statewide ticket, which could help Democrats in local congressional and state legislative races. However, it may work out the other way. Gov. Jerry Brown is a shoo-in for re-election, and this might discourage Democrats from bothering to vote. Many political pundits are predicting a low Democratic turnout in the governor's race. This would also boost Valadao's and Vidak's fortunes.
Mark C. Salvaggio was a Bakersfield City Councilman from 1985 to 2004.