When Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., announced his retirement in late 2009, several prominent local Republicans scrambled to claim his seat. In a tough primary, state Sen. Jeff Denham topped former Rep. Richard Pombo and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson. With the GOP nomination secured, Denham won the general election with little trouble.
Denham’s parents were just 17 and 18 years old when they had him, and in an interview with the Almanac of American Politics, he said, “For that reason, I’ve always been strong pro-life.” He was born near Los Angeles and lived in Indiana for five years, but he spent most of his childhood in the Northern California town of Pescadero. He is the oldest of three children; his mother worked at car dealerships and his father was at various times a farmer, a construction worker, and a meat cutter. His parents divorced when he was in high school, and Denham spent much of his time at his grandparents’ home. Denham’s grandfather served in World War II and the Korean War before joining the Los Angeles Police Department. At age 17, Denham enlisted in the Air Force. “The influence of my grandparents is why I joined up,” he said.
Denham was on active duty for three-and-a-half years and was in the Air Force Reserve for more than a dozen years. His job was crew chief, preparing and maintaining aircrafts such as the F-4 fighter jet and the C-5 transport plane. After transitioning to the Reserve, Denham attended community college and then transferred to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo, where he was active in the college Republicans and received a bachelor’s degree in political science. During the Persian Gulf War, he was called to active duty and worked on an air base in Saudi Arabia. He also maintained aircrafts involved in the peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1993. Back home after his service, Denham became the manager of a packaged-salad company, and in 1998, he founded his own business, Denham Plastics, an agricultural container supply firm. In 2004, he bought a ranch in Merced County, where he grows almonds.
Denham first ran for public office in 2000, losing a bid for the California Assembly. Two years later, he ran for the state Senate and eked out a victory in a district where Democrats held a 12-point registration advantage. In the Senate, Denham sponsored a bill that would have sold San Quentin State Prison and another that would have required convicted pedophiles to wear electronic tracking devices for their entire lives. In 2007, during one of California’s numerous budget crises, Democrats needed Republican support to approve a budget. Because of the makeup of Denham’s district, Democratic leaders hoped that he would agree to a compromise that included both spending cuts and tax increases to balance the state’s books. Denham refused, and as a result, Democratic Senate Leader Don Perata organized a recall campaign against Denham. The petition drive acquired sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot in June 2008, but a resounding 75 percent of voters chose not to recall Denham.
In December 2009, Radanovich announced that he would retire at the end of the term to care for his ailing wife. He called Denham shortly before Christmas and asked him to run. Denham, however, did not have a clear path to Congress. A rare open congressional seat got Patterson and Pombo interested in the race. Pombo had been ousted from the neighboring 11th District by Democrat Jerry McNerney in 2006.
Denham’s primary opponents criticized him for flying on a corporate jet with Republican strategist Karl Rove, a possible violation of federal election law, and for his ties to an Indian tribe that sponsored ads attacking his opponents. But with strong fundraising and the support of the popular Radanovich, Denham won the primary with 36 percent of the vote, ahead of Patterson, who finished with 31 percent. Pombo placed third with 21 percent.