The largely agricultural and industrial 22nd District, which covers parts of Fresno and Tulare counties, was broken up into pieces by the state’s redistricting commission, redistributing much of the GOP base into surrounding districts as it tried to strengthen the influence of Latino voters in the Central Valley. Much of Nunes’ old district will now be 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.
The election on Tuesday is to fill the district, under its current lines, through the end of the year. June’s primary and November’s general election will be held under California’s new district lines, with the winner taking office in 2023 for a regular two-year term.
Given the expiration date of the current district lines, the vacancy drew a slate of largely unknown but ideologically diverse candidates in an under-the-radar race that the state parties and national congressional campaign committees have generally ignored. All registered voters in the district were sent a mail-in ballot, and polls close at 8 p.m. PT.
The brevity of the potential assignment in Washington has 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, has 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 trouble-shooting 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, view the Nunes seat as a starting point as they vie to represent the new 21st District, where they will face Costa.
“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 is 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.
“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.
Maher, a Navy veteran and former FBI agent, 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 have been 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.
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.
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 hesitate about supporting a Democrat, Hubbard asks 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.’”