BY JOHN ELLIS The Fresno Bee
Proving the pundits right, Republican David Valadao easily defeated Democratic opponent John Hernandez to take the 21st Congressional District race.
With all precincts reporting, Valadao won 59.9 percent of the vote to Hernandez's 40.1 percent. In Kern County balloting, Hernandez edged Valadao 51.61 percent to 48.39 percent.
"It looks really good," Valadao said late Tuesday. "I'm thrilled. I'm excited. And I'm looking forward to this new opportunity to represent this community."
The race had been predicted to be an easy win for Valadao early on but became competitive toward the end. Valadao rolled to a comfortable primary victory, and Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong, the choice of establishment Democrats, finished third. Hernandez finished second, earning him the right to challenge Valadao under the state's new top-two primary.
But Hernandez seemed to constantly struggle to gain traction. Fundraising was slow, and the campaign was consistently in debt.
As a result, most political watchers figured Valadao would cruise to victory, even though Democrats, as in the 16th District, hold a 15-percentage-point registration advantage.
But in early October, an article in the National Journal -- a nonpartisan magazine that covers national politics and policy -- quoted a Republican saying private polling was moving "the wrong way" for Valadao.
A short time later, a group known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies announced it had put together a television ad attacking Hernandez and said it was spending more than $600,000 on the race.
The Crossroads GPS ad buy caught the attention of everyone, and suddenly the 21st District was in play. Hernandez fanned the flames by saying an internal poll showed him in striking distance.
Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, who used to represent much of the new 21st District, won his race in the newly created 16th Congressional District against Fresno Republican Brian Whelan. With all precincts reporting, Costa took 54.5 percent of the vote to Whelan's 45.5 percent.
That race, too, had been on the radar screens of political watchers both locally and in Washington, D.C.
Costa was being watched early because of his narrow 2010 win over Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak. Republicans had insisted he was vulnerable.
But Costa's new 16th District includes heavily Democratic parts of Fresno, as well as the western half of Madera County and all of Merced County.
Also helping: Whelan's campaign wasn't able to catch on with national Republicans. He made contender status with the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Young Guns" program but was never able to reach the top rung, which brings with it campaign funds.
Because of that, pundits said the 16th District was no longer competitive as September moved to October.