California’s rural-urban divide blurs in crucial House race

Water and immigration are key issues as Democrats seek to unseat an incumbent.

 

As the searing heat of the early summer sun pushes the temperature near triple digits, a tractor kicks up clouds of dust, and a sign welcomes visitors to Oakdale, California, the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Here, on the east side of California’s 10th Congressional District, where hypnotic rows of almond orchards march up into hilly grassland, agriculture is clearly king.

About 40 miles west, on the other side of the district, the same fertile soil yields a different crop: houses. In Tracy, California, rows of them follow freeway corridors, and developments along plastic-lined ponds are advertised as affordable “waterfront homes.” Fleeing the out-of-reach prices of Bay Area real estate, commuters brave hours of traffic or the disjointed public transportation system to have a home and little yard of their own. 

In this district, amid the rows of orchards and rows of houses, one of the most important midterm races for the U.S. House of Representatives is underway. Its result hinges on a tricky confluence of issues, including immigration and water. 

Republican incumbent Jeff Denham has held the seat since 2012. His challenger, 32-year-old Josh Harder, is a progressive Democrat who grew up in the district. The race is one of a handful that could tip the balance of national political power. It also echoes the shifting politics of California and much of the West, as liberal, urban population centers spread into conservative rural communities.

Barely a week after the June 5 primaries, a group of about 50 pro-immigrant demonstrators gathered to chastise Denham, who had just the day before announced that he would drop his bid to force a vote on four immigration bills. Outside Denham’s Modesto office, in a small business park across from a nut-processing facility and directly off busy Interstate 99, his opponent, Harder, dressed in blue jeans and a button-up shirt, addressed the crowd. He castigated his opponent for what he described as Denham’s failures regarding Dreamers, the children of undocumented immigrants who were protected by DACA, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Rep. Jeff Denham with new American citizen Gilberto Nungaray of Merced in 2017 at the conclusion of a naturalization ceremony.
Joan Barnett Lee/Modesto Bee via ZUMA Wire

“Immigrants are the economic and social fabric of where we live,” Harder told the crowd. “We are not going to get progress on immigration reform with the Congress we have today and with the congressman that we have in this district… Our member of Congress, when he is told by his party’s leadership, he stands up and does exactly what they want him to do.”

Since the start of primary season, Denham’s seat has been a target for Democrats. Previous elections and district demographics indicate that it could be flipped. Denham, a square-jawed veteran who owns a plastics company that produces agricultural supplies like bins and planting trays, had the narrowest margin of victory of his congressional career in 2016.

Here, where Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by 3 percentage points, Democrats hope the backlash against the Trump administration will inspire strong turnout from the district’s large Latino community. Latinos represent about 43 percent of the population and about 30 percent of eligible voters in the district. For Democrats, high voter turnout, especially among Latino voters, is key to gaining a seat in the deeply agricultural district.

At the rally, 19-year-old Julissa Ruiz Ramirez, a daughter of immigrants who came to the area when she was 4, said she thinks Denham has let the district down. Ruiz Ramirez is a student at Stanislaus State University in Turlock, California, at the southern end of District 10. She’s active in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, a student group that advocates for students of Latino and Mexican descent. “Ever since Trump got elected, I’ve seen members of my community starting to attend protests for the first time,” she said.

In her community, she’s up against the notion that voting doesn’t matter, a sentiment she has felt at times but is working to overcome. “For those of us that have the privilege to vote, we are going to vote and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get (out the Latino vote),” she said.

Pro-immigrant demonstrators gather outside Rep. Jeff Denham’s Modesto office to express their opposition to his wavering support of Dreamers.
Carl Segerstom/High Country News

A few days after the primary, the Republican Party of Stanislaus County met for the first time since the polls closed. The meeting kicked off with a call for the party to rally behind Republican candidates in local elections, where they dominate. But when Denham’s constituent representative addressed the crowd, the tone of the meeting shifted. People’s voices rose, questioning whether the congressman, who has been a moderate voice on immigration within his party, supported what they see as “amnesty for illegals.”

Ted Howze, a local veterinarian who ran to the right of Denham, channeled the frustration of this energized flank of the local Republicans in his primary campaign. In social media posts, Howze called Denham a “pro-amnesty RINO (Republican in name only).” Howze got more than a quarter of the Republican vote and sliced into Denham’s base. The incumbent finished ahead, but down 10 percentage points from the 2016 primary.

Denham’s campaign manager, Josh Whitfield, a local city councilman whose large frame recalls his days playing football at Hughson High School, tried to settle the crowd and remind them that they probably have more in common with Denham than Harder. On social media, the campaign often derisively refers to the Democratic candidate as “Bay Area Harder” — a dig that aims to paint the young tech entrepreneur as out of touch with the Central Valley. At the conclusion of the meeting, Whitfield reminded the crowd of Ronald Reagan’s aphorism on party unity: “My 80-percent friend is not my 20-percent enemy.”

Local Republicans are well organized and have built a stable platform that favors Central Valley interests over broader state politics. Central Valley residents feel frustrated by a state political scene they see being driven by the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area, where urban populations dwarf the vote share of every other region.

In the valley’s agricultural economy, few issues are more important than water. And many locals see Republicans as a bulwark against the environmental interests that wield influence in Sacramento. Jim DeMartini, the chair of the Board of Supervisors of Stanislaus County, for example, said a big part of Denham’s appeal is his defense of the valley’s water supply. “Water is just a real big issue here,” said DeMartini, who also heads the local Republican Party organization. DeMartini is such a strong Trump supporter that he doesn’t plan on taking down his yard sign “until (Trump) finishes his second term.”

“We’re dealing with this left-wing Legislature that wants to take the water out of our dam, supposedly for the salmon,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

That animus to Democrats in Sacramento has fortified Republicans’ waning demographic hold in the district. Pamphlets and road signs for the state of Jefferson movement, which preaches secession from California, are making their way from the Sierra foothills to Central Valley. As one Oakdale voter said, “Keep it simple man: Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat.”

Democratic congressional candidate Josh Harder walks in Modesto’s Fourth of July parade.
Nicole Nabulsi/Harder for Congress

Meanwhile, Harder walks a fine line between the agricultural interests of the district and the environmental priorities of the state’s Democratic establishment. He supports building more water storage, which is generally at odds with environmental health, but also proposes incentives for farmers to adopt water-saving irrigation systems. His most ambitious suggestion involves building inland desalinization plants in the valley, a proposal that would raise a host of environmental concerns in terms of energy use and the additional infrastructure necessary to build the plants. 

Harder is trying to appeal to the agricultural community at the east end of the district, while mobilizing the growing bedroom communities to the west.

At the protest in Modesto, Manuel Zapata, who has a goatee and wore a black baseball hat, warned the crowd of the impacts of Republican immigration policies. Zapata, a local organizer, is trying to tap into the energy of resistance and rouse a politically inert base.

Democrats hold the edge in voter registration in the district but have a history of low turnout, especially in midterm elections. Like many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Zapata was moved to political engagement during the 2016 election and served as a primary delegate for Bernie Sanders. As he canvasses on the streets of Tracy, Zapata says he hears over and over: “I didn’t know there were any Democrats in Tracy.”

Turning this disconnected community of Democrats into an engaged voting bloc could help bring on the blue wave Democrats are hoping for in November. And Zapata said Harder has already made inroads by campaigning in an often-overlooked community and hearing out local concerns. “We’re trying to flip a district, but we need to care about a pothole,” Zapata said. His message to voters: “Maybe Josh Harder can’t fix your pothole, but he can do different things that do affect your pothole. There’s a disconnect between local problems and congressional and national problems, but we’re all suffering from the same issues.”

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

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