Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

21st Congressional race was a Valadao rout, but Hernandez still has chance to make it respectable

The 21st Congressional District battle between Hanford Republican David Valadao and Fresno Democrat John Hernandez was, in short, bizarre.

Democrats have a 15-percentage-point registration edge in the district, but Hernandez’s campaign was consistently broke, which makes it hard to get out the message. Valadao had a ton of cash and, while the seat technically had no incumbent, an advantage as a sitting Assembly member.

Soon, political prognosticators stopped paying attention, and the race fell off everyone’s radar screen.

Then came a suggestion that Republicans saw some poll numbers that hinted at trouble, and not long after Karl Rove’s super-PAC, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, announced it was spending more than $600,000 in anti-Hernandez ads.

Hernandez predicted a close race.

It never came.

As it currently stands, Valadao has close to a 20-percentage-point lead, 59.9% to 40.1%.

Not surprisingly, Valadao dominated in Kings County, his home turf, winning better than 70% of the vote. Be it Cal Dooley, Jim Costa, or now Hernandez, Kings has delivered spanking after spanking to Democrats.

Hernandez knew Kings wasn’t his strong area. (Not to mention parts of the district in Tulare and his home county of Fresno.) To offset Kings and win the race, he needed to win big in Kern County, where the 21st District has most of its Democrats. Hernandez was even in Bakersfield on election night.

But as of now, Hernandez is winning less than 52% of the vote in Kern to Valadao’s 48%.

Lots of votes still remain to be counted in Tulare and Fresno counties, but because a good chunk are in Kern County, it is widely expected that Valadao’s lead will shrink — though his ultimate victory margin still likely will be substantial.

Kings has around 1,500 provisional ballots left to count, so they are close to finishing.

Kern has close to 50,000, Fresno 78,000 and Tulare around 30,000. The district doesn’t cover all of Kern, Tulare or Fresno counties, so not all those will be in the Hernandez-Valadao race.

Still, that Kern has that many outstanding ballots is good for Hernandez, though outstanding votes still to be counted in Fresno and Tulare could break against him.

Hernandez is down by more than 16,200 votes to Valadao, so ultimately, all he can hope for is that those outstanding Kern ballots will make his loss respectable, instead of a landslide.

Political Notebook: Is the 21st Congressional District competitive? The evidence is conflicting

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in on the 21st Congressional District race for the first time.

The DCCC said it was doing a robocall on behalf of Democrat John Hernandez. The gist of the call: Vote for Hernandez because he would be the first Mexican American congressman from the district, where two-thirds of the voting-age population is Hispanic.

Here’s part of the script, which features “Maria from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.” The call says Hernandez, “unlike his Republican opponent” David Valadao, “supports the DREAM Act,” which would allow illegal immigrants under 30 who entered the U.S. before age 16 and have lived here for five years without committing a serious crime to be eligible for legal residency.

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The evidence continues to mount that Hanford Republican David Valadao won’t roll to an easy win over Fresno Democrat John Hernandez in the newly drawn 21st Congressional District.

A few weeks ago, that was the assumption. The race, just about everyone thought, was a done deal. Hardly anyone was paying attention.

Then came an article in the National Journal — a nonpartisan magazine that covers national politics and policy — that quoted a Republican saying private polling was moving “the wrong way” for Valadao.

On Friday, a group known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies said it had put together a television ad attacking Hernandez, and was spending more than $600,000 to buy air time.

Now, political watchers from the Valley to Washington D.C. are wondering if the race is truly competitive, or if Valadao just needs to shore up his lead.

“I think Republicans are worried that if Valadao doesn’t define himself, the person with the Hispanic surname may have an actual advantage,” says Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks federal races.

Like so many other political prognosticators, the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball e-magazine long ago stopped considering the race competitive. But now Kondik says it “may be moving back on to the table,” though still rated as “likely Republican.”

Among Hernandez’s advantages are a nearly 15-percentage-point voter registration advantage, and a huge Hispanic electorate. Hernandez has vowed to get those voters to the polls.

In addition, President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, and Gov. Jerry Brown did as well in 2010.

But Hernandez’s disadvantages are huge. For starters, he really doesn’t have any money. He raised just $53,000 between July 1 and September 30, has just $17,700 in his account — and $40,000 in unpaid bills. His campaign has constantly been in debt.

In addition, while the Republicans seem to be pushing the panic button, Hernandez’s own Democratic Party — or any of its political allies — isn’t helping with any money at all.

This comes at the same time it is pouring hundreds of thousands into a Stanislaus County-based congressional race involving another Hernandez — former astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Republican Jeff Denham in what is shaping up to be a very close race.

Valadao, in the meantime, has almost $800,000 in his account, and he plans to run television commercials through the November 6 general election. Coupled with more than $600,000 in ads from Crossroads GPS, and that adds up to a double-barreled onslaught of anti-Hernandez and pro-Valadao campaign advertising.

The Valadao campaign is also touting an internal poll that shows him with a 20-percentage-point lead — 53% to 33% — and 14% saying either they are undecided or will vote for neither. However, it is unknown how the questions on the race were asked.

In some ways, the Hernandez-Valadao clash has similarities to the 2010 race between incumbent Democrat Jim Costa and Republican challenger Andy Vidak.

That race was largely quiet — until mid-September. In the final seven weeks, Vidak went toe-to-toe with Costa in what turned out to be a very competitive race.

The common thread is the territory. Costa’s district at that time was largely the same as the area that is now part of the 21st District.

Costa is now gone, thanks to a redistricting that put him in a new district that runs from Fresno to the north. But could history be repeating itself in a chunk of his old westside Valley stamping grounds?