BY JOHN ELLIS The Fresno Bee
Three Republicans who represent competitive central San Joaquin Valley districts are off to strong starts at fundraising, which political experts say is an essential first step to hold on to their seats.
Each of the districts -- two in the state Senate, one in Congress, all three of them on the valley's west side -- share some critical traits that favor Democrats.
Perhaps most important is the Democratic Party voter registration advantage, which is at least 15 percentage points over Republicans in each district. In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama both posted election victories in the districts.
But each of the three is held by a Republican -- Anthony Cannella in the newly configured 12th state Senate District, Andy Vidak in the 14th state Senate District and David Valadao in the 21st Congressional District -- who are headed into this year's election not only as incumbents, but with significant fundraising advantages.
"If we don't have the money to get our message out, we're pretty much dead in the water," said Luis Chavez, a Fresno Democrat who is challenging Vidak, a Hanford Republican.
Vidak, who last year won a special election, only to have to run again this year, raised almost $210,000 for his re-election bid, and had more than $183,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31.
By contrast, Chavez said he raised less than $2,000 through the end of last year, and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, who is also challenging Vidak, said he has yet to open a campaign finance account.
Valle said being a Kings County supervisor during a drought has taken all of his time so far.
Vidak didn't comment directly on his fundraising edge.
"Everything is a concern," he said of raising money. "We've got a lot of work to do between now and (the election). But my job is to just talk to voters and listen."
Cannella, a Stanislaus County Republican whose new district includes the western one-third of Fresno County, appears to be in an equally advantageous fundraising position.
He raised more than $500,000 last year and had almost $830,000 in his campaign coffers as of Dec. 31. His opponent, Democrat Thomas Hallinan, Patterson's city attorney and a Yosemite Community College trustee, is in the red when his cash on hand is compared to his campaign debt.
"Hallinan is not a serous threat," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.
The one race that looks competitive -- based solely on fundraising -- is the 21st Congressional District seat, which is held by Valadao, a freshman Republican from Hanford who moved to Congress in 2012 after a term in the state Assembly.
Last month, Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria announced she had raised more than $337,000 in her challenge of Valadao, which was an impressive start. She had more than $255,000 in her account as of Dec. 31.
"We're thankful to all of our grass-roots donors who are dedicated to bringing an effective voice for the valley to Washington," said Emily Nowlin, Renteria's campaign manager.
Tal Eslick, Valadao's chief of staff, said Renteria's campaign finance report "reads like a Washington, D.C., yearbook. It is clear that she is the choice of political operatives and labor unions."
But Valadao did pretty well, too. His report shows he raised $939,211 last year and had $676,734 cash on hand.
At this point, the three Republicans look to be in strong positions, said David Schecter, a former Fresno State political scientist who is now associate vice president for faculty affairs at Cal State Bakersfield.
Schecter said incumbents not only have built-in fundraising advantages that allow them to tap into political action committee money, but also staffers to help them research critical issues -- such as the ongoing drought, a top valley issue this year.
In addition, 2014 is a mid-term election. There is no presidential race at the top of the ticket, which Schecter said would drive higher minority and Democratic Party voter turnout.
But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be a cake walk.
Hoffenblum said he still thinks Democrats are looking for a strong candidate to challenge Cannella.
In Vidak's race, Hoffenblum said he thinks outside independent groups could come to the aid of either Valle or Chavez. Vidak's victory last year was in a special election, which political experts say are low-turnout contests that almost always favor Republicans.
"This is the kind of district where it would be nice to have a candidate go out and raise a lot of money, but it could very likely be one where independent groups who are supportive of Democratic Party candidates come in with the necessary money," Hoffenblum said.
Chavez said it's "simple math ... we need $1 million to be competitive in the race."
Hoffenblum doesn't think Chavez or Valle can do it by themselves.
"Neither one of them can go out and raise $1 to $2 million, but the outside groups could," he said.
As for Renteria, her challenge is to continue her strong fundraising push, which could help show the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and, possibly, outside groups, that she is viable.
Hoffenblum said Renteria is "competing with every targeted (Democratic) race from San Diego to Bangor, Maine." Her job, he said, is to show she is worthy of Democratic Party or independent money from a limited pot.
But there is no doubt Valadao will pay attention to where those donors live.