By Maeve Reston, CNN
Polls have closed in California’s 22nd Congressional District where voters cast their ballots in the special election to replace Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who resigned in January to head the Trump Media & Technology Group.
Six contenders were vying to fill the vacant seat in a district covering portions of Fresno and Tulare counties from Clovis to areas south of Visalia. But the winner may only end up serving in Congress for a few months after the district was sliced into pieces by the state’s non-partisan redistricting commission. It will cease to exist in its current form when the new Congress is sworn in next year.
Nunes’ loyalty to former President Donald Trump made him a polarizing figure in California and nationally. But the race to replace him among four Republicans and two Democrats — most of whom are not well-known — has been relatively congenial, focusing largely on local issues like drought and the struggle to get more water to farmers in the Central Valley.
As of Monday, less than 16% of the mail ballots that were sent to each voter eligible to vote in Fresno County — about 40,657 ballots — had been returned by the 258,752 voters who were eligible to participate. Less than 14% of the mail ballots sent to the 156,269 eligible voters in Tulare County had been returned as of Monday, according to county officials. All registered voters in the district were sent a mail-in ballot.
Tuesday’s election was the first step toward filling the district’s vacancy, under its current lines, through the end of the year. June’s California primary and November’s general election will be held under the new lines drawn by California’s redistricting commission, with the winner taking office in 2023 for a regular two-year term. Under the new maps, much of Nunes’ old district will become part of the new 21st District, anchored by Fresno, where veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Costa is the front-runner in what is considered a safe seat for his party.
Under California’s top-two primary system, county officials will determine whether any candidate has received the majority of the votes (50% plus 1). If not, the top-two finishers, regardless of party, will proceed to a runoff on June 7, when California holds its statewide primary election. A runoff could produce even more confusion, because the names of one or more of the special election candidates could appear twice on the June ballot if they’re competing for a second office.
The brevity of the potential assignment in Washington created a split among the candidates between those who say they’re only interested in this seat and those who are simultaneously seeking another congressional office for the term that begins in 2023.
Republican Connie Conway, who has the most name recognition in the field as a former minority leader in the state Assembly and a former Tulare County supervisor, argued voters should support her because she would serve in a “caretaker” role and not use the office as a “stepping stone” to another congressional office.
“There’s just a lot of district work that I really want to see happen until the very end; I think that’s very important,” Conway told CNN, noting the troubleshooting role congressional offices play on everything from passport delays to problems with Social Security benefits. Conway said she has built relationships with most members of the California delegation on both sides of the aisle. “I think I’m the right person at the right time to finish the job.”
Others like Republicans Matt Stoll and Michael Maher, as well as Democrat Eric Garcia, viewed the Nunes seat as a starting point as they vie to represent the new 21st District, where they will face Costa.
Stoll, a retired Navy fighter pilot who has said he wants to be a part of a “red tsunami” in November, told CNN he is trying to build momentum in the special election as “a springboard” for the contest in the 21st District. He described the remaining months of Nunes’ term as a time when he could build alliances with like-minded members “to roll back every aspect of the progressive agenda and what Joe Biden stands for.” He listed examples that ranged from school curriculum that he says is intended to “indoctrinate our children in socialist ways,” to environmental lawsuits in the Central Valley that have limited the flow of water for farmers, to limits on domestic oil drilling, which he says have thwarted America’s potential for “global energy dominance.”
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Garcia argued that if Democrats can gain control of Nunes’ seat, it would serve as an important symbolic victory for the residents of the San Joaquin Valley, who have been “suffering in silence” from the region’s decades-long challenges with poverty, air pollution and contaminated water supplies. Garcia told CNN he would focus on just one piece of legislation to aid the Valley’s struggling families — reinstating the enhanced monthly child tax credit that ended in 2021 after Democrats’ efforts to extend it collapsed.
“I don’t see (the special election) as a stepping stone. I see it as an opportunity to finally bring representation to a district that has been neglected for 10 years,” said Garcia, a therapist and Marine veteran who unsuccessfully challenged Nunes in 2020 and decided to run in the district again after the US Capitol insurrection.
“Generations upon generations of my family live in this valley and we’re suffering with bad air, bad water. I’m just sick of it,” Garcia said. “I want to be a voice for those people who have no voice and have been left behind.”
Commitment to immigration reform in an agricultural region
The sense that the region’s voters have been neglected was a unifying sentiment among the candidates, including Republican technology executive and former congressional aide Elizabeth Heng, who founded The New Internet, an encrypted internet browser that she said does not track or sell the information of its users.
As the daughter of Chinese-Cambodian immigrants who grew up in Fresno working in her parents’ grocery store, Heng told CNN she has been frustrated by what she called the lack of progress on top issues for the district’s voters. She pointed to the scarcity of water, the need for both immigration and education overhauls, and what she views as a hostile climate for those trying to start or maintain businesses. She noted that she ran to address those same concerns as the 2018 Republican nominee in the 16th Congressional District, which she lost to Costa by 15 points.
“Even just the basic civil discourse here — it has completely deteriorated — and we need to have new faces, new leaders that can bridge the divide,” said Heng. She argued she could be a “leading voice” in “getting our immigration policy resolved once and for all” as the daughter of refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge.
“We need to come up with new ideas to be compassionate about the individuals that are already in our country — and on top of that, DACA recipients that through no fault of their own are in the state. We need to have a pathway to citizenship for them,” she said, referring to immigrants who came to this country as children and were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that is now in limbo.
All of the Republican candidates supported Trump’s border wall.
Maher, a Navy veteran and former FBI agent, has said he hopes to foster a less polarizing conversation around immigration. He said he would work on legislation to “create a clear pathway for people to come in and work and be able to return home.” When asked whether he favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in this country, or even a narrower solution for the “Dreamers,” Maher wouldn’t commit to a specific plan.
“This is not an issue that one congressman from the Central Valley is going to come and say, ‘I’m going to solve this entire thing,'” he said, adding that he is working with the Latino community in the Central Valley as well as business owners and farmers to determine the best solution based on the region’s labor needs.
Unpredictability in a field of lesser-known candidates
Even longtime political observers of the region were skittish about making predictions in an unusually timed special election among a field of lesser-known candidates and low spending.
Heng led the field in fundraising, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, after raising $214,900, followed by Garcia with $205,715.
As the Central Valley got more competitive during Nunes’ final terms, the veteran congressman enjoyed a comfortable lock on his district not only because of his rising national profile within the GOP as House Intelligence Committee chairman, but also his huge war chest. He held his seat with a comfortable 8-point margin in the 2020 — a slightly better showing than Trump, who defeated Biden by just over 5 points in the 22nd District. Nunes had poured more than $20 million into the race to dispatch Democrat Phil Arballo, who spent about a quarter of that amount and is now running in the new 13th District.
In the most recent breakdown of party registration available from the state, nearly 39% of voters in the current 22nd District were registered as Republicans, 34% as Democrats and 20% as “no party preference.”
During a Fresno County Republican Party forum earlier this year, Conway, Maher and Stoll all pledged to support Trump if he were to run for president in 2024. Heng said she believes there are some “great” potential GOP contenders including Trump, but said she believes all of the candidates should “earn the support” of voters through the primary process.
All four GOP candidates said they would favor an audit of the 2020 presidential election during that recent forum, though Conway said her support would depend on what entity was conducting the audit. There is no evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and even GOP-led partisan “audits” have confirmed Biden’s victory.
The Republican registration edge in the district hasn’t stopped the Democrats vying for Nunes’ seat — Garcia and Lourin Hubbard — from championing some progressive policies that go well beyond even what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed as a presidential candidate.
Hubbard told CNN he favors eliminating all federal taxes on overtime to help lower- and middle-income families. He supports canceling student loan debt, favors tuition-free community college, and would also like to see “debt-free public college” where the state and federal government defray the costs of four-year public universities. He also wants the federal government to guarantee every person in America a union job that pays at least $20 an hour. A manager at the state water resources control board, Hubbard said he is shaping a proposal that would ask the government to pay off existing medical debt of up to $25,000 or $50,000 for all Americans — noting it is one of the top reasons people go bankrupt — but said he had not yet calculated what that would cost.
In his pitch to voters who hesitated about supporting a Democrat, Hubbard asked them to consider whether “voting for the same party, the same person, over the last 20 years really made a difference or an impact in your everyday life.”
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” he said. “So with this special election — and me not running for anything else — I’ve kind of been freed up to say: ‘Let’s just try something new.'”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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