California Congressional Races
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
Big swaths of the Golden State remain conservative, and changing the political fabric and voting patterns of a community takes more than one election.
By: Miriam Pawel
The New York Times (Contributing Opinion Writers)
TURLOCK, Calif. — It started so small. Twenty people in Crystal Sousa’s living room, traumatized by the election of Donald Trump, trying to channel desperation into constructive action. Be the Change, they called the group that coalesced in this small, conservative city in the Central Valley of California. Almost all the leaders were women. Most had never engaged in politics. But they had been PTA mothers, Girl Scout leaders and teachers. They knew how to get things done.
Last weekend, almost two years after she hosted her first house party, Ms. Sousa stood on a flatbed truck dispatching wave after wave of volunteers to knock on voters’ doors. So many hundreds of canvassers showed up that teams were sent back to revisit houses where no one had been home the first time. Their message was straightforward: The four-term incumbent, Representative Jeff Denham, was an ally of President Trump, loyal only to the Republican Party, betraying the interests of the people of the 10th Congressional District.
Whether their argument proved persuasive enough may not be clear for days. On Wednesday, Mr. Denham was holding a slim lead over his Democratic challenger, Josh Harder, with many votes uncounted, including provisional ballots cast on Election Day and mail-in votes still in transit.
Even absent results, Mr. Harder cast his campaign as part of the Democrats’ larger success in retaking the House. “Our real opponent was not somebody else on the ballot,” he said. “It was apathy and cynicism.”
A 32-year-old political novice who grew up in Turlock, Mr. Harder put together an old-fashioned campaign that drew on lessons from recent Democratic victories: Underdogs can topple incumbents only by organizing, not for months but for years, not after a candidate is chosen but before, not just by demonizing President Trump but by tying Republicans to issues that resonate with voters — reduced access to health care, attacks on immigrants.
“We knocked on 200,000 doors — 200,000 doors in the last three days!” Mr. Harder said on election night. “That’s insane!’’
And yet, even that, coupled with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, may not have been enough. The failure to score a clear victory in the 10th District, a scenario repeated in other California districts that Democrats tried to flip, is a reminder that large portions the state remain conservative, incumbents are difficult to dislodge, and changing the political fabric and voting patterns of a community takes more than one election cycle. The California results also suggest that Trump supporters may be more committed than polls detected, and the intense focus on these districts guaranteed they would show up to vote.
On paper, Stanislaus County, the bulk of the 10th district, has had a Democratic majority since April 2008. But as in much of California, party registration is not necessarily predictive of voting patterns. In a state that grew up fiercely committed to repudiating political machines, ticket splitting is a given. Stanislaus Republicans have long held a lock on local offices, even as the county has voted, until 2016, for every winning presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.
“California with Southern hospitality and a Southern mind-set” is how Ms. Sousa describes the community where she grew up, a legacy of the long-ago migration of Southern Democrats to the Central Valley. Democrats here historically refrained from advertising their beliefs; there were few lawn signs for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, though each carried the district.
That changed after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, in ways that both enlarged and further polarized the electorate. A dozen groups like Be the Change sprung up — Our Revolution, Indivisible Manteca, Patterson Progressive Alliance. The groups came together as the CA 10 Progressive Alliance, united in their determination to flip the district. They reached out to engage the young and disenfranchised. And they registered voters; the total in the district increased 18 percent since the last midterm, almost double the statewide average.
As in the rest of California, the biggest increase came in independent voters, whose numbers since the last midterm grew more than 50 percent; they now make up almost a quarter of the district’s voters. That further complicates the political calculus, underscoring the degree to which personal beliefs and connections outweigh party loyalty.
Mr. Denham, who won re-election two years ago by less than 4 percent, campaigned on his familiar name and identification as a businessman who shares the district’s values. The words “veteran” and “farmer” figured prominently on his signs. In an agricultural and industrial area where guns are popular and abortion is not, Mr. Denham was outspoken in support of the Second Amendment and in opposition to abortion. He ran a vicious television advertisement that used an out-of-context clip to suggest Mr. Harder supported taxpayer-financed abortions through the ninth month.
It will take weeks of analyzing votes that have not even been tallied to determine exactly who voted and how much of the race turned on support or opposition to President Trump versus the contest between Mr. Denham and Mr. Harder. That the Republican may have eked out another win is a testament to the strength of incumbency and the convictions of his conservative base, who vote far more reliably than the new and the disillusioned voters whom the Harder coalition worked to enfranchise.
On the issues, Mr. Denham’s alliance with the president increased his vulnerability. Growers have been among Mr. Denham’s core supporters, but Trump policies on immigration and trade have hurt the walnut and almond growers and dairies that are bulwarks of the local economy. The congressman highlighted Mr. Trump’s commitment to help get more water for farms, although the promises have yet to translate to action. And on health care, a key concern for many in a district that relies heavily on Obamacare, Mr. Denham reneged on a promise to vote against cuts in the Affordable Care Act, joining Republicans’ unsuccessful effort to repeal and replace.
“There’s an elephant in the race for California’s 10th Congressional District, and Jeff Denham is carrying him on his back,” wrote The Modesto Bee, endorsing Mr. Harder after having supported Mr. Denham in all but one of his previous races. “That orange elephant’s name is Donald.”
Mr. Denham’s campaign script sought to distract attention from the issues and sow doubts about the values of the man he only referred to as “Bay Area Harder,” often adding “liberal” as the ultimate pejorative. Like many young people, Mr. Harder had left the valley — in his case to attend Stanford and Harvard and work at a venture capital firm. He was not politically involved and did not even vote until he moved back to Turlock to run for Congress, galvanized by the election of Mr. Trump.
In a sense, Mr. Denham was correct that Bay Area liberals posed a threat. Experienced activists came over the Altamont Pass from San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, weekend after weekend — in previous years, they had gone to help campaigns in Nevada or Arizona — and focused their zealous energy closer to home. “Before, nobody ever thought, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Central Valley,’” said Andrew Kim, field director for Flip the 14 (a reference to the 14 Republican-held districts in the state), which chartered buses.
The result was an unheard-of army of volunteers with clipboards and smartphones, traditional one-on-one organizing married with apps that tracked progress in real time. Some volunteers stayed with locals and built relationships that, like the Harder campaign, may lay the groundwork for future change.
“This is not just one election,” said Ms. Sousa, a teacher who was recently elected to her school board. The grass-roots groups will continue to meet regularly, regardless of the outcome of the congressional race. “This is going to change the whole make up of our district. It’s been life changing, honestly.”
Whatever the outcome in this congressional contest, the Democratic campaign has laid the foundation for much-needed change in a district where fewer than 18 percent of the people have college degrees and 40 percent rely on MediCal, the state’s version of Medicaid. The Harder campaign marked a milestone here in the Central Valley, potentially an inflection point to empower a community badly in need of help.
But change doesn’t happen overnight. The last time so many Bay Area activists traveled to the Central Valley was in the 1960s, when they formed the bulwark of early support for Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ movement. The strike against grape growers endured five years before the United Farm Workers union finally got its victory.
Miriam Pawel is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She is an author, journalist and independent historian. @miriampawel