Democrat Makes Inroads in Central Valley GOP Stronghold

FILE – In this Wednesday, March 22, 2017, file photo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., pauses while meeting with reporters outside the White House in Washington following a meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

TULARE, Calif. (CN) – With the midterm elections just eight days away, and with seven vacant seats in the GOP-dominated House up for grabs, California’s 22nd District is one of many trying to ride a blue wave all the way to Washington.

For Democrats to turn the tide in their favor, they need to wrest control of 23 Republican-held seats. In the 22nd District, the showdown between incumbent U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and challenger Andrew Janz is a sample of similar battles being fought across California and the nation.

Janz wants to be the first Democratic representative elected in the 22nd since 2000, when Lois Capps beat Republican Mike Stoker and the district covered parts of San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Los Angeles counties. In 2013, it was redrawn and now spans from Clovis and north Fresno eastward to Orange Cove, through Visalia and as far south as Tulare in California’s Central Valley.

In short, Janz is fighting to win in a district that has been deep red since Capps left office in 2003. Nunes, an eight-term incumbent, has never been seriously challenged since his first election to represent what was then the 21st District in 2002.

The closest race for the seat occurred in 2016, when Nunes trampled Democrat Louie Campos by 34 points, his slimmest margin of victory out of the last three wins.

Pundit website FiveThirtyEight’s forecast for the 22nd District race gives Nunes a 95 percent chance of victory, mostly because the district is about 15.3 points “more Republican than the nation overall.” Nunes is also one of the most powerful men in the House, chairing the elite House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and is also an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump.

But none of that fazes Janz, a Fresno prosecutor who has seen a swell of support since Nunes won the primary in June by 26 points. An LA Times poll conducted this month sliced Nunes’ lead to just eight.

Andrew Janz, Democratic candidate running for the 22nd Congressional District in California. (Andrew Janz for Congress)

Janz attributes his success to Nunes’ inability to connect with voters and give them a voice in Washington.

“People are waking up to the fact that Devin Nunes doesn’t work for us anymore,” Janz said in a phone interview Sunday. “Now we’re seeing folks on both sides of the political spectrum coming together around my campaign. I’ve tried to make it as little about red versus blue, winning back the House, Republican versus Democrat as possible. We’re really trying to build a bipartisan coalition here in the valley. And we think that no matter what happens in this race, we’ve begun to sow the seeds of a potential future Democratic challenge to all types of positions in the Central Valley.”

But many voters still claim Nunes does indeed represent them.

Mitchell Lewis, a 64-year-old resident of Lindsay and registered Republican says that for him, the two most important issues are water rights and immigration – things he thinks Nunes is handling just fine. He hears all the talk of Nunes’ corruption and abandonment of the Central Valley, but he says it won’t stop him from casting his vote for the incumbent on Nov. 6.

“I don’t hold much weight into the trash-talking,” Lewis said. “We’ve got that scrap going on every time there’s an election.”

When asked if Janz had a shot of winning the race, Lewis shook his head and said “No.”

Part of the trash-talking involves a 38-page mailer released by the Nunes campaign blasting the Fresno Bee newspaper for reporting “entirely false” personal attacks based on “false allegations by liberal activist groups that are funded by wealthy Hollywood and liberal elites.”

Nunes’ campaign did not respond to phone and in-person requests for comment.

Janz said he hasn’t had a chance to look at Nunes’ “manifesto,” but says “it represents his desperation, of not being able to have a positive message and not being able to explain to voters what he’s done in his last 15 years in Congress.”

He added: “If you don’t have a record, the most feasible political thing you can do is try to tear down your opponent with lies and go after the media.”

Another voter, Joy Augustson of Tulare, also feels water and immigration are central issues of importance. She says she isn’t worried about Nunes being portrayed as a villain.

“People are confused and believe in lies,” she said, adding she will definitely be voting for Nunes.

“I appreciate him,” Augustson said. “I watched him grow up.”

Not all voters in the 22nd District see water and immigration as the only issues, however. Concerns about what Nunes and his Republican colleagues might do to Medicare and Social Security weigh heavily on the minds of particularly older voters like Dave Derby of Fresno, who says he’s voting for Janz.

Derby cites Janz’s concern for the citizens in the district and his approachability as the main reasons he’s voting for him. Nunes has “moved in the direction of cutting Social Security and Medicare and voted to do away with the Affordable Care Act,” Derby said, while Janz “has made a stand on Social Security and Medicare to not have it cut or privatized.”

For older Americans like himself, Derby says this is just as big an issue as water rights or immigration and he feels strongly Janz can be the face of the public.

“He (Janz) has said that he’ll have town hall meetings,” Derby said, “and our public officials need to be open to us.”

Nunes has been noticeably absent from his office in Clovis, which has prompted a weekly silent vigil that has continued every Tuesday for over a year.

Although the 22nd District is heavily Republican, with about 40 percent of voters leaning red, Janz still believes he can come out on top. For him, a victory would mean seizing control of the district from Nunes and giving it back to the citizens – something he plans on doing if he is elected.

“I want to surround myself with people who represent the diversity of my district,” he said. “Build bridges when we get to Washington and work with moderate Republicans on building infrastructure. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about doing the best thing for the people that live in my district.”

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