Health Care, Trump Dominate Central Valley Congressional Race

MODESTO, Calif. (CN) – If pollsters end up being correct on Nov. 6 and U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican, loses his bid to represent a slice of California’s Central Valley for a fifth term, it will likely come down to two reasons: health care and President Donald Trump.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Denham represents California’s 10th Congressional District, which spans all of Stanislaus and part of San Joaquin counties. (U.S. House of Representatives photo)

Of course, winning and keeping the seat has never been a piece of cake for Denham, a 51-year-old Air Force veteran with nearly two decades of elections under his belt. Even as a state senator, when he was the target of an ultimately unsuccessful recall campaign for refusing to help end a state budget stalemate, Denham’s wins have often been squeakers.

Now, as the 10th Congressional District swings from purple to blue – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama carried the district in 2016 and 2012, respectively, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 11,000 – pundits say Denham’s days in Congress are numbered. Election prognosticator website FiveThirtyEight gives Denham a 22.6 percent chance of winning on Tuesday.

Not that Democrats have always made the right moves to win the seat. In 2012, they put up a former NASA astronaut and political newcomer; they put up another newbie in 2014, who took on Denham again in 2016. As a testament to the purple-ness of the district, the races were within a few percentage points.

This time – after Denham beat out the nine Democrats and another Republican in the June primary – the Democrats are running yet another political newcomer, and he’s a newbie in more ways than one. Area native Josh Harder, a 32-year-old venture capitalist-turned-junior college professor, acknowledges being “complacent about politics” and didn’t vote in an election until Trump was elected in 2016. Neither campaign responded to email requests for comment.

On paper, this should be the easiest fight Denham’s faced in a while. Although Harder grew up in Turlock and went to high school in Modesto, Denham’s campaign has done a bang-up job painting him as two things many Central Valley residents have no use for: a San Francisco Bay Area liberal and a venture capitalist. Instead, their race is very, very close. The very definition of a toss-up even now, a day before Election Day.

Some of Denham’s woes this time lie in the district he represents. As a whole, the Central Valley has been slower than the rest of the nation to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. The unemployment rate for Stanislaus County is around 6 percent, twice the national rate. If the 10th Congressional District was a state, it would be the poorest in the nation.

Consequently, a lot of voters in the district rely on the Affordable Care Act for their health insurance needs. And it comes as no surprise that Denham angered a lot of them in 2017, when he joined his fellow Republicans in voting to repeal and replace Obamacare. The bill undermined coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and slashed federal funding for Medi-Cal.

Some 40 percent of District 10 rely on Medi-Cal for their health care needs. And Denham promised constituents a few weeks before the vote that he opposed the bill. While Obamacare survived a Senate vote in the end – albeit badly damaged – Denham may not. Insurance rates spiked by 30 percent this year and up to 100,000 people in the district may lose coverage.

Marta, a 24-year-old registered Republican, says she’s voting for Harder because of Denham’s about-face on Obamacare.

“He promised to keep Obamacare and he lied,” Marta, who declined to give her last name, said. “I won’t be able to afford coverage next year and it’s because of Jeff Denham. I either have to quit school and get a full-time job to keep my insurance, or go without. I can’t have both.”

Businessman and Central Valley native Josh Harder, a Democrat running for the California 10th Congressional District seat currently held by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. (Josh Harder for Congress)

Harder has used Denham’s record on Obamacare to his advantage, blasting the congressman’s vote with a barrage of TV advertisements. But his ads rarely mention Denham’s other problem, summed up best by the Modesto Bee’s editorial board in its endorsement of Harder:

“There’s an elephant in the race for California’s 10th Congressional District, and Jeff Denham is carrying him on his back,” the board wrote. “That orange elephant’s name is Donald, and there’s nothing Denham can do to make him disappear.”

They continue: “If you like what our nation is becoming, send Denham back to Congress. But if you’re worried about millions being left behind economically, that health care is endangered, that discrimination is increasing, that our nation is sundered by rage fueled on both sides by an angry, unchecked president, then vote for Josh Harder. Vote for Harder despite his inexperience and lack of civic involvement. Vote to leash the orange elephant.”

Denham has voted to support Trump’s agenda nearly 98 percent of the time. In less than two years, that agenda has raised the national debt by nearly $2 trillion, to an unthinkable and unsustainable $21.5 trillion. It’s also resulted in a trade war that’s hit the district’s top economic engine – agriculture – especially hard.

And then there’s immigration. Denham has always been a champion of the Dreamers, kids brought here by undocumented parents and raised as Americans, and one of few Republicans who’s been outspoken about the need for both comprehensive immigration reform and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program launched during the Barack Obama Administration.

Trump thanked Denham for his support by gutting the program to protect Dreamers from being deported from the home they’ve ever known; the end of DACA leaves some 5,000 of Denham’s constituents in limbo.

The president’s unpopularity in the district, in which white voters barely outnumber Latino voters, could well be Denham’s undoing. Harder’s campaign has blasted Denham’s ties to the president in several ads, and the message resonates with voters.

Simon R., a 23-year-old Democrat, said there’s no question he’s voting for Harder to send a message to the president.

“Somebody needs to stop Trump,” he said.

Even Marta, the registered Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, said the president needs to “tone it down” when it comes to his rhetoric.

“He makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “He’s done some good things for the country but he’s also divided us. And that makes me sad.”

Whether Valley voters will decide to toss a seasoned congressman for a political newcomer who’s only voted in a couple elections is a question that will be answered in the coming days. If the 2016 presidential election taught nothing else, it’s that polls aren’t always adept at predicting the future. Denham may well squeak to another term; shifting a district from red to blue or blue to red takes time, absent a redrawing of the map. But one thing is sure: If he wins, Denham can expect to be in another fight for his political life – perhaps along with the president – in 2020.

Unfortunately for voters, that campaign kicks off already on Wednesday, no matter who wins.

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