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The Central Valley Surprise: Why Democrats Came Close to a Shutout

A second Republican performed well in California’s 10th — and no one saw it coming

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is expected to face a Democrat in November for his 10th District seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is expected to face a Democrat in November for his 10th District seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats in Southern California faced a real threat of not making the general ballot in certain races before Tuesday’s primaries. But no one saw that coming in the Central Valley.

Democrats laser-focused on three races in Southern California, but not on the 10th District in the Central Valley, held by Republican Rep. Jeff Denham

The incumbent did draw a Republican challenger, veterinarian Ted Howze, while six Democrats were also on the ballot. And to the surprise of Republicans and Democrats, Howze is currently in third place in a race that The Associated Press has not yet called.

Under California’s top-two primary system, Republicans and Democrats compete on the same ballot. So races in which Democratic candidates outnumbered Republicans raised party concerns about splitting the Democratic vote and allowing two GOP candidates to advance to November.

Republicans and Democrats are not expecting Howze to secure second place, even though votes are still being counted. But his unexpected performance did raise questions about Denham’s future.

So what happened? 

While Democrats spent millions on three seats in Southern California over worries of a general election shutout, neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor House Majority PAC spent in the 10th District primary. Neither group picked a favorite of the six Democrats on the ballot.

EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights, did spend $291,000 backing Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño, who is in fifth place.

Howze’s late entry to the race wasn’t seen as a threat to landing a Democrat on the ballot.

He was polling in the single digits, according to operatives in both parties. And he hadn’t spent much money. HisFederal Election Commission filings showed his campaign had only spent $13,500 as of May 16, and nearly all of his fundraising came from a $136,000 loan to his own campaign. 

But as of Thursday, Howze was just 850 votes behind the second-placed Josh Harder, a Democrat. The AP has still not called Denham’s November opponent.

On the surface, Howze looked like a conservative challenger to Denham. His social media accounts promote other posts that label Denham a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. And he promoted California gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, who was a favorite among grass-roots conservatives.

“That’s a label that was put on us by our opponent,” Howze said of the impression that he was challenging Denham from the right.

“I’m actually a very moderate Republican,” he said.

Howze said he would not have voted for the Republican bill to repeal the 2010 health care law, nor the GOP tax overhaul. And while he supports President Donald Trump, he said,“I certainly would not consider President Trump a role model for my children nor for myself.”

“The only issue that I’m right of Congressman Denham on is probably immigration,” Howze said.

Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected so-called Dreamers —undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — has sparked a heated debate in Congress.

Denham has been at the center of a push from more moderate Republicans to force a vote on immigration legislation, particularly on the Dreamer issue. 

Howze said he believes that only those who registered for DACA should be eligible for citizenship. He said Dreamers who did not register should not be considered for a path to citizenship because they are likely criminals.

“I definitely got some of the base of the Republican Party concerned about the discharge petition,” he said, referring to the procedural mechanism that Denham is pushing to force a vote on the issue. “But I also picked up quite a few independents.”

It is not yet clear how many voters not registered with either party ended up backing Howze, since votes are still being counted. Denham’s campaign manager Josh Whitfield doubted that Howze did well among voters with no party preference.

Howze said his all-volunteer campaign did capture some energy and discontent with Denham. One Democrat involved in the race noted that most of Howze’s remarks at various campaign forums hit Denham for being disconnected to the district.

Mixed lessons 

Both sides had different takeaways from Howze’s surprising performance in the primary. 

Denham is a target for Democrats as one of seven Republicans in California who represent a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election race Tilts Republican. 

And Democrats are taking the primary results, in which Denham garnered 38 percent of the vote as of Thursday afternoon, as a sign that the incumbent is in serious trouble.

“Congressman Jeff Denham gave his weakest performance yet in Tuesday’s primary — even amongst Republican voters — and it’s clear that his constituents recognize that he is no longer representing their best interests in Washington,” DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich said.

Harder, Denham’s likely opponent, said in a statement the congressman’s numbers Tuesday were “painfully low” and that he was “out of sync” with the district.

But Republicans saw it differently.

“I’m not worried about Jeff at all,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said off the House floor Wednesday.

Stivers said some of “Jeff’s friends” were trying to boost Howze to block Democrats from the November ballot. Whitfield, Denham’s campaign manager, said that was not true. 

Whitfield also said Howze’s performance was more of an issue for Democrats than the four-term congressman. He said it showed that Democrats could not turn out enough voters.

Combining Denham and Howze’s vote totals shows that a majority of the primary votes counted so far — 52 percent — were for Republican candidates. Democrats won a combined 48 percent of the primary vote.

Democrats have a voter registration edge over the GOP in the 10th District, 38 percent to 35 percent. Twenty-one percent of voters are not registered with a party.

Republicans also pushed back against questions that Denham’s performance showed he was in trouble with conservative voters.

“The base, I believe, will come home for Congressman Denham in the general,” Whitfield said. 

Howze said he would look at endorsing Denham or Harder if he doesn’t end up in second place when all the votes were counted. 

He’s eyeing another run in the 10th District if Denham loses in November, or possibly taking on Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney in the neighboring 9th District, where Howze technically lives. 

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