FRESNO, CALIFORNIA — On a balmy February evening, nearly 150 volunteers gathered in a small office park in California’s Central Valley, home to the North Fresno field office of Democratic congressional candidate Andrew Janz. Most have never been actively involved in politics, but they believe the 34-year-old Fresno County Deputy District Attorney has what it takes to unseat their congressman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, and turn California’s 22nd congressional district from red-to-blue. While projections show that Nunes is still safe in the upcoming 2018 elections, momentum against the incumbent has been building.
Nunes is widely perceived to be no more than a surrogate for President Donald Trump thanks to his mismanagement of, and subsequent recusal from, the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 election. So much so, that the district’s leading newspaper, The Fresno Bee, which had previously endorsed Nunes, labelled him “Trump’s stooge” in January. Nunes now refers to the paper as a “left-wing rag.”
Then, there’s the infamous “Nunes Memo.” Reaction to the memo among Janz’s supporters is visceral; its contents, a source of derision. Their congressman’s staunch support of the president is not, however, the sole factor that has brought these activists together.
Nancy Gilmore, a retired engineer and lifelong Democrat from nearby Clovis said there are people in desperate need of help and Nunes has been unresponsive to their needs. “He’s voted against air quality, EPA regulations, clean drinking water. Very baseline health issues. There’s the whole Russia thing, but what’s most concerning is his complete and utter disregard for this district.”
Gilmore believes Janz has a fighting chance. “When Pennsylvania happened, it was like, wow, this could happen here,” she told ThinkProgress, referring to Democrat Conor Lamb’s recent surprising victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.
But Republican control of Nunes’ district has been a historical given — the district hasn’t elected a Democrat in almost two decades and has re-elected Nunes four times. Nunes previously represented the adjacent 21st congressional district before district lines were redrawn following the 2010 Census.
Still, constituents are hopeful. Because as red as the 22nd district is, it has fewer registered Republican voters than Lamb’s, according to the 2017 Cook Partisan Voter Index. Numbers aside, it doesn’t help that constituent outreach hasn’t been high on Nunes’ to-do list.
Patty Cappelluti, a part-time medical biller and co-leader of Central Valley Indivisible, told ThinkProgress she’s been living in Nunes’ district for over 20 years. “I never heard from him, never received anything, until Andrew Janz started running. All of a sudden, I’m getting mailers.”
According to Janz, Nunes hasn’t held a town hall meeting since 2010. ThinkProgress made attempts to confirm that with his communications director, Jack Langer, but calls were not returned. It appears unlikely that Nunes is planning on holding a town hall anytime soon. City Councilman Jose Sigala, a Democrat from Nunes’ hometown of Tulare, told ThinkProgress he contacted Nunes last June, offering to help arrange a town hall. Sigala has yet to hear back from him.
“I’ve seen this on more than one occasion,” said Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke. “A supposedly safe, powerful member of Congress becomes so focused on Washington, D.C. that they just stop paying attention to what’s going on at home. And voters take notice of that.”
Karol Seabolt, a teacher, told ThinkProgress she was inspired to get involved in the race after attending last year’s Women’s March. “They motivated us to take our politics local.”
Upon returning home, Seabolt started a Facebook page and began organizing a group of volunteers whose sole mission was to challenge Nunes and the Republican Party’s domination of the district, which includes parts of Fresno and Tulare counties. Seabolt said the number of followers grew exponentially. “At that point, we didn’t care who was going to run against him, we were gonna bring him down,” she said.
Janz supporters are regularly out in force in Fresno. Many are being coordinated by precinct captains, canvassing neighborhoods, phone banking, and writing postcards. Cappelluti said volunteers from San Francisco and the state’s Central Coast have been holding postcard parties. She noted that nearly 17,000 cards have been sent to the district’s Democrats reminding them to vote.
“What’s invigorating for me is people who’ve never been involved before say they need to be now because of Nunes and Trump. People have come out of the woodwork,” said Nancy Griesser, a retired educator from Fresno, who has volunteered for a number of local campaigns.
Holyoke said this activism may sneak up on Nunes. “Before you know it, Nunes can find his whole district has eroded right out from underneath him without him even noticing it,” he said.
“I didn’t even know Devin Nunes was my congressman”
California’s Central Valley has long been a Republican bastion and Nunes, who comes from a family of dairymen, has consistently trounced his Democrat opponents with little effort. Troubling to many of Nunes’ constituents is the fact they weren’t even aware he was their representative prior to his involvement with the Trump administration and the supporting role he’s played in its unfolding Russia scandal.
Until last year, Nunes had maintained a decidedly low profile. The first time many in the district caught a glimpse of their congressman was when he was standing in front of the White House before a bank of microphones and a gaggle of reporters.
“I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know Devin Nunes was my congressman,” said Gilmore. “When I found that out, I called up his office to find out a little more about him. And basically, was met with just a stone wall. I vowed right then I’d look into his record and do everything in my power to flip this district.” Gilmore, who is in her early 60s, said that, until now, she’d never been politically active. “I wore a [George] McGovern shirt when I was about 16. Really, that was about it.”
Despite his limited exposure in the district, what Nunes does have going for him is money. His cash on hand at the end of last year was nearly $3.8 million according to Federal Election Commission records; much of that coming from PAC’s, big agriculture, the health care industry, corporations, and conservative donors whose ideology and economic interests align with his own. Janz is taking a grassroots approach. Like Lamb, he’s not seeking corporate money, rather opting for smaller contributions from individual donors.
Holyoke noted that Janz has probably done a better job of raising money than any candidate who’s attempted to take on the incumbent in the past. Janz campaign manager Heather Greven told ThinkProgress that in the 48 hours leading up to the release of the Nunes memo, over $100,000 poured into the campaign, with nearly half that amount coming in on the day its contents became public.
“Nunes is probably going to get a tougher challenge than is usual, but I doubt he’s losing too much sleep over this. Then again, complacent congressmen have gone down before,” said Holyoke.
Many of Janz’s volunteers have optimistically pointed to Lamb’s campaign and believe they can turn the tide at home. “It’s all in the numbers,” said Seabolt. “I don’t care how much money there is in the world, if you haven’t got the voters motivated to vote, you’ve got squat.”
The Latinx question
High on the list of priorities for Janz supporters is reaching out to a powerful, yet disenfranchised group of voters who may have a significant impact come November: the Central Valley’s large Latinx community, which make up almost 50 percent of the 22nd district’s electorate. Getting them to the polls, however, is no easy undertaking.
Santos Garcia of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization for Central Valley union members, told ThinkProgress that his and other organizations which represent the valley’s working-class, have been focusing much of their effort on the down ballot, where a few hundred dollars goes a long way in helping elect local candidates. He said that the national Democratic Party expects candidates to raise millions, yet makes very little financial and organizational effort to support those running for Congress.
Because many Latinx leaders believe Janz has a real chance to take Nunes’ seat, however, they’ve become more active in his campaign. “Janz is a local-grown guy who speaks our language. He has lots of support in the community. In the last ten years, nobody has been able to generate buzz like Andrew,” said Garcia.
“Janz is a local-grown guy who speaks our language.”
Sergio Martinez, of Lindsay, a farming community just east of Tulare, is in his 30s and works for the local school district. He doesn’t believe candidates from either of the two major parties have made much of an effort to engage Latinx voters in the past and feels that reaching out to the community on their own turf is the only way to win their votes.
“People who are working in the fields come home dog tired and live routine lives,” said Martinez. Martinez, whose parents emigrated to the Central Valley in the 1970s, were farm laborers who spent most of their lives picking grapes and oranges. “They don’t even know who the candidate is. They’re not going out of their way to find out who’s running or what they’re all about. You need to come to them,” he said.
Art Rodriguez, a community activist and director of field operations for the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance, told ThinkProgress that this sense of hopelessness and disengagement from the electoral process has been self-defeating for the Latinx community. Especially given that Nunes’ positions on DACA, immigration, health care, and a border wall are in lockstep with the president’s. “The attitude is ‘why bother?’ Even though they could really bring about change by voting,” said Rodriguez.
“Here, the only contact most of them have with government is the police,” said Rodriguez. “What they see is people being arrested or the police pulling people over and questioning them for no reason.”
Still, the possibility of voting Nunes out of office in November seems to be a motivating factor among these disparate groups of activists.
“This time in our nation’s history is completely different than any other,” she said. “The energy of this blue wave, even though it can’t be quantified, needs to be added into the equation.”