Local Politics

Friday, May 23 2014 05:13 PM

Valadao sits back as Democrats fight for second

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, participated in a forum at Beale Memorial Library on Feb. 20 for candidates running for his 21st Congressional District seat. The forum also included Democratic challengers John Hernandez of Fresno and Amanda Renteria of Sanger.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Democrat Amanda Renteria answers a question as part of a forum Feb. 20 at the Beale Memorial Library for candidates running for the 21st Congressional District. The forum also included Democrat John Hernandez and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who currently holds the seat.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Democratic challenger John Hernandez of Fresno participated in a recent forum at Beale Memorial Library for candidates running for the 21st Congressional District. The forum also included Amanda Renteria, a Democrat from Sanger, and incumbent Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

The 21st Congressional District race, at this point, has little to do with Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

He is running for re-election, of course.

But with two Democratic opponents vying for what's presumed to be second place, Valadao can keep his powder dry -- and campaign account full -- as the June 3 primary approaches.

And that, said campaign spokesman Tal Eslick, is exactly what the freshman congressman is doing.

Valadao's opponents in the primary, former U.S. Senate staffer Amanda Renteria of Sanger and former Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce official John Hernandez of Fresno, don't have that luxury.

Both are airing television ads and focused on pulling in as many votes as possible.

Valadao, by contrast, isn't putting a lot of effort or money into the campaign. It's presumed he'll finish first and face either Renteria or Hernandez in November.

Valadao's campaign Facebook page has exactly one post from 2014. His latest campaign finance report, released Thursday, showed he raised $191,181 in the past month-and-a-half and had $967,127 stored up for the general election.

Valadao is "focused on doing his job as a member of Congress," Eslick said. The campaign has done some polling and it shows, he said, that "Congressman Valadao is in a very, very good spot."

Having that polling data, Eslick said, made it easier for Valadao to decide to take the primary easy.

Valadao also has some breathing room thanks to the $300,000 independent expenditure the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pumped into a television ad backing the first-term Republican.

The TV spot notes that Valadao is the son of immigrants -- though it doesn't mention they came from Portugal -- and touts him as a fighter for immigration reform, water and jobs in the San Joaquin Valley.

PRIMARY

All that is not to say that June 3 is not important to the Democratic Party's chances of winning back the 21st District in November's general election.

As of April 4, the 21st District was 45.7 percent Democratic and the party had a stark 14.2 percent registration advantage over Republicans.

The district -- which runs northwest from Arvin and Lamont, skirts west Bakersfield, and runs up the west side of the valley to Fresno -- is also heavily Latino.

But in 2012, the Republican son of European immigrants handily defeated a Latino Democrat (Hernandez) to win the seat.

Democrats and Latinos have, historically, voted less vigorously than Republicans in Central Valley districts producing a string of nail-biting finishes in past races.

But Hernandez ran a poorly funded campaign in 2012 and was crushed by Valadao.

Hernandez's 2014 campaign looks to be more of the same.

In his most recent campaign filing -- submitted in April -- Hernandez reported $14,059 cash on hand and $40,000 in debt.

The Democratic Party is backing Renteria, a Stanford and Harvard-educated Latina with valley roots and a Washington pedigree, as the best shot at unseating Valadao in a race that is being watched closely by both parties and the east-coast media.

Renteria's Thursday filing showed she raised $96,949 between April 1 and May 14 -- half of what Valadao did -- and spent $207,587.

That's three times as much as the $75,291 Valadao spent during the period.

Renteria had $328,804 in the bank at the end of the reporting period, but that is only one-third of Valadao's cash on hand.

Valadao's campaign would be fine, Eslick said, facing either opponent.

He portrayed Renteria as a member of the Washington, D.C., elite and dismissed Hernandez as a supporter of high-speed rail.

But it's clear Valadao's team would prefer to face Hernandez.

Renteria has, Eslick said, "shown an ability to raise a lot of money from Washington, D.C."

Indeed, Eslick repeated the outsider claim against Renteria during a discussion with a reporter but barely mentioned Hernandez.

Hernandez said he's ignoring what his opponents think about him and is focused on his campaign.

"Sticking to the basics has served us well," he wrote in an email. "Our grassroots efforts have been very effective. Voters want to hear what you are going to do, not just glossy sound bites. We give them the real thing."

Hernandez claims polling shows him ahead of Renteria.

Renteria's campaign fired back at Valadao's team.

"Valadao has no record of results to run on, so it's no surprise that he is afraid to face Amanda in the general election," said Maria Machuca, a Renteria spokeswoman. "Amanda's got an accomplished track record of reaching across the aisle to solve problems, and she's the only candidate in this race who will fight for Central Valley families in Washington."

POLLING

Machuca said that Renteria's campaign has done polling, too, and those numbers have left the Democrat's campaign confident she will face Valadao in the general election.

Renteria has two television advertisements, one in Spanish and a similar one in English, out on the airwaves.

And, Machuca said, the candidate is traveling extensively up and down the San Joaquin Valley talking with people and hitting community events to spread her message.

Machuca said the campaign is spending money on advertising where it is needed.

"We have done everything we need to do," Machuca said.

Renteria is definitely holding some resources in reserve, her finance reports show.

But she has spent a substantial sum in the last month getting her name to voters -- which may be prudent given the lessons learned from the 2012 race.

Hernandez earned a shot at Valadao in 2012 by narrowly defeating better-funded, party-backed Democrat Blong Xiong.

Political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, said with a good campaign team and solid advice, Renteria should defeat Hernandez.

"The campaign is conducting a multi-media campaign, TV, direct mail and web ads. That should get her second place," he said.

GENERAL ELECTION

Hoffenblum said, at this point, Valadao has the luxury of taking the campaign easy -- especially with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advertisement doing most of his heavy lifting for him.

But the primary does have some things that should concern him, the analyst said.

"Valadao is much more concerned about Tim Donnelly," Hoffenblum said.

If Donnelly, a conservative, pro-gun, anti-immigration reform firebrand Republican defeats more moderate Neel Kashkari in the primary, Valadao could face a serious challenge from Renteria, he said.

A Donnelly win is, Hoffenblum said, "going to scare the bejeezus out of Latino voters."

If they respond by pouring into the polls in defense of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, Valadao could be in trouble, he said.

Immigration is a major issue in the 21st District race and both Valadao and Renteria have taken swings at each other on the topic.

Valadao has supported comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

But Renteria points out he opposed the Dream Act -- which would have helped young people in the country illegally afford college -- while he was in the California Assembly.

Eslick, this week, called the claim unfair, saying Valadao voted against it because an immigration solution is a federal issue.

But Renteria is likely to hammer hard on Valadao's record if she does, indeed, make it past Hernandez and into the November general election.

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