State legislatures, home to innumerable ambitious politicians pondering their next moves, are fertile ground for congressional recruiting. But in California's Central Valley, the state Senate has diverted Democrats’ congressional talent pipeline. An unexpected vacancy enticed a prospective Democratic opponent for freshman Republican Rep. David Valadao to run for the state Senate instead, again delaying Democrats’ recruiting efforts in a friendly-looking congressional district that has nevertheless been problematic for them for over a year now.
In January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invited Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez to Washington for President Obama's inauguration, an honor bestowed on a handful of important recruits. The committee has prioritized enlisting candidates early in its top target districts, and even though Perez had just won her first elected office in November, she looked capable of marshaling the voters who carried the 21st Congressional District for Obama even as Valadao also won.
But those plans unraveled in March when Democratic state Sen. Michael Rubio unexpectedly resigned to take a corporate lobbying job, triggering a special election in his 16th state Senate District. The Senate seat overlaps almost exactly with Valadao's congressional district--but is open and more Democratic-leaning. Perez, a former Rubio staffer, announced she would run to replace him less than a month after he resigned.
Local Democrats admit the development has upset their long-term plan to oust Valadao. "We really did have a plan for how things were going to go, but at this point I don't have any idea who might be running for Congress," said Candi Easter, the Kern County Democratic Party chairwoman. "We're still reeling from this Senate special."
Fresno County Democratic Party chairman Michael Evans, from the 21st District's northern end, agreed. "The Senate race is certainly picking off the front burners at this point."
Easter refused to confirm that Perez was planning to run for Congress, but the DCCC confirmed it was recruiting her. Perez did not respond to multiple phone calls.
House Democrats have recruited especially aggressively in GOP-held Obama districts like this one; in over half of those seats, top candidates have already been named and have started laying early foundations for 2014. From a Democratic perspective, Valadao’s district is in need of some cultivation: The seat wasn’t home to a major field program in 2012, it is over 70 percent Hispanic, and it has fewer registered voters than any other congressional district in California.
For the DCCC's part, deputy executive director Jesse Ferguson was sanguine about the unexpected hiccup. "Sure, our recruitment strategy will adapt to other elections that will come before it, certainly," Ferguson said. "But it has not decreased the interest from folks in a winnable seat."
Losing Perez to the state Senate race is not a death blow to Democratic hopes in the 21st Congressional District. Only one other GOP-held House seat gave Obama a greater share of its votes in 2012 than the 21st, where Obama won with 55 percent of the vote. Valadao dispatched a weak Democratic nominee, John Hernandez, who raised less than a tenth of what Valadao did and was abandoned by Democratic outside groups, including the DCCC.
But rebooting the recruiting process is a definite bump in a road Democrats have already had trouble navigating. Though Democrats hold a registration advantage and Obama comfortably carried the seat, the 21st Congressional District is no liberal enclave. "People have this perception that California is all liberals sitting in hot tubs drinking wine all the time, but the Central Valley is very conservative," Easter said. "It's more like Texas than like some other parts of California."
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer managed just 39 percent of the vote within the 21st District's borders in 2010, and voters there supported Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage by a 2-to-1 margin in 2008.
That makes recruiting a strong candidate an imperative, not a luxury. In 2012, Rubio himself was considered an early favorite for the seat, newly created in redistricting, but he dropped out of the race just before New Year's for family reasons. A few big-name Democrats, including former state Sen. Dean Florez and former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante flirted with runs before eventually opting out, leaving the party without a viable candidate or time to build up a backup option.
That helped Valadao gain a foothold in a tough district. "It's always difficult to beat an incumbent, so we did drop the ball in 2012," Easter said.
According to a committee source, the DCCC had staff in the district appraising potential candidates in March, and the 2014 cycle is still fairly young. "In 2012, a few big names waited too long and no one was able to get in the race with the time to gather support," Fresno's Evans said. "This time around, we have a lot more time to work with."
Still, all the time in the world means nothing without a viable plan B, which was painfully absent for 21st District Democrats in 2012. Hernandez is already running again, but he doesn't seem like the answer, though Easter and Evans expressed hope that he had grown as a candidate. Without Perez, the early recruiting House Democrats have touted this year has started over again.