They offer voters a clear political choice, considering their diverse stands on tax increases, budget cuts, immigration reform and how to save the financially ailing Medicare system.
Denham is considered the incumbent because he was elected in 2010 to represent eastern Stanislaus and parts of five other counties in the 19th Congressional District.
All congressional district boundaries have been redrawn based on population counts from the 2010 census. Denham decided to move from Atwater to Turlock to vie for the new 10th Congressional seat.
Hernandez is a newcomer to politics. He grew up primarily in Stockton, worked as a Bay Area engineer, moved to Houston to become an astronaut and flew on a space shuttle in 2009.
The United States ended its shuttle program in 2011, and Hernandez moved back to California last winter to launch his campaign. He lives with relatives in Lodi now while his home is being built in Manteca.
Hernandez said he began giving motivational talks in San Joaquin Valley schools in 2010, and what he encountered scared him.
"The economy was in shambles then," Hernandez recalled. "We were at the peak of the foreclosure crisis and the valley was the epicenter of that. The unemployment rate was twice the national average and yet no one was doing anything about it for our area."
He said he met "parents who were worried how they were going to put food on the table and how they were going to pay their mortgage.
They were afraid their kids weren't going to achieve the American dream with hard work and education. That's why I decided to come back and make this a better place."
Denham also is worried about the country's future. He's troubled by the region's sky-high unemployment and the ever increasing national debt.
"I believe we can change this country so that this won't be the first generation that didn't leave our country in a better position than our parents and grandparents left it to us," Denham said. "I'm going out there fighting to make a difference."
While he's not a fan of President Barack Obama's policies, Denham assured he is willing to work "across party lines or with the commander in chief to get important things done for my community and for the nation."
For example, he notes how legislation he introduced last spring the Veteran Skills to Jobs Act won bipartisan support and was signed by the president.
Denham said he also is working with Democratic lawmakers to get various water-related bills through Congress.
Hernandez said he, too, is interested in working to find bipartisan solutions to California's water supply issues, which he considers crucial to protecting agriculture.
"I'm for protecting the environment, but I'm for a little common sense," he said. "In that area, I'd probably not be too popular with the Democratic Party.
But there's a reality point where you say this makes sense and that doesn't."
Hernandez says he's an an independent thinker: "I'm a leader, not a follower." But when asked to specify an issue on which he would oppose Democratic leaders and side with Republicans, he wouldn't do it.
The vast majority of Hernandez's campaign funds come from outside the region, incuding public employee unions and left-leaning political action committees.
But "there aren't any special interest groups that are going to come back and say I have to vote for something," said Hernandez, who doesn't consider such organizations as teachers unions to be a special interest. "I don't believe they're going to influence me in making decisions on what's best for my district."
Denham's campaign funding also is dominated by out-of-district donors, including numerous medical groups, oil companies, financial institutions and food producers.
Many agribusinesses, particularly, support Denham, who takes pride in being "a small farmer." He leases 20 acres of almond trees, manages a sweet potato warehouse and owns a company that provides plastic containers for agricultural products.
"I'm living the American dream," he said. "I grew up on a farm, and I saw my family lose their farm. I've seen the death tax shut a lot of farms down as they change hands to the next generation."
Denham said he'll never forget being in grade school and "seeing my mom pull out food stamps. I had no idea what they were. I learned a very big lesson in life. I don't want to see my family ever put in that situation again. I don't want to see any family put in that situation."
Hernandez also saw his share of hard times growing up in a Mexican family of migrant farmworkers. Although he was born in French Camp and his parents became U.S. citizens, Hernandez's perspective on immigration reform is very different from Denham's.
"Anytime you have a country that has 11 million undocumented workers, you've got to come to grips that the system is broken," Hernandez said.
He believes the nation needs to create a way for those immigrants to become legal residents. "I would want to see a path to legalization of people who have been living in this country a certain period of time
and have not gotten in trouble with the law (or) been a big burden to society in terms of social care," Hernandez explained.
He said such illegal immigrants would have to pay a fine and the back taxes they owe to attain legal status. They then would be eligible to participate in such government programs as Social Security, which Hernandez said many undocumented workers already pay into.
What kind of reform?
Denham agrees the country needs immigration reform, but his priority is to create a guest worker program that would accommodate the country's temporary labor demands. He also wants a more secure identification system established to help figure out who is or isn't here legally.
"There are some who would say, 'Why can't we just give amnesty to everybody,' " Denham said. "But we have a system of entitlements that is already on the verge of bankruptcy. I'm not going to see seniors lose their benefits because we have made bad decisions as a government and now the government is breaking its promises."
Denham said "an overall inclusive policy" that deals with all aspects of immigration and the need for temporary farmworkers needs to be passed during the next congressional term.
Hernandez doesn't want a guest worker program or a secure ID system to be part of immigration reform. He said there's "a bad taste in the mouth left from the Bracero program" that brought temporary Mexican farmworkers into the United States from 1942 through 1964.
Hernandez opposes any kind of secure ID system because he's "not for anything that makes it harder to vote."
"I'm more for holding the employer more accountable," Hernandez said. "They're the ones who can check the passports and work permits and get on the computer to make sure their employees are legal."
Hernandez suggested enforcing "the laws we have on the books already" before creating another government bureaucracy.
Taxes and cuts
The candidates also differ on tax increases and budget cuts.
That includes their diverse opinions on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's November ballot measure to boost California taxes by $6 billion per year. That initiative would increase income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 and raise the sales tax rate by a quarter-cent for everyone.
"I'm against it," Denham said. "We had the largest tax increase in our history two years ago. Did it solve the problem? No. The problem has gotten worse.
Jerry Brown has not instituted the types of reforms that give people the confidence that government is going to spend its money correctly."
Hernandez said he will vote "yes" on Proposition 30 because "people should pay their fair share of taxes
and we've got to fund education."
They also have different ideas on how to save Medicare from going broke and how to reduce deficit spending.
Denham supported the plan that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says will make Medicare financially solvent and give seniors more health care choices.
Hernandez doesn't like that plan, contending it would turn Medicare into a voucher system that would cost seniors more money. To save Medicare, he suggested allowing anyone over 50 to buy into the government-run health care program.
"So instead of paying insurance premiums to a private insurance company, they pay it to Medicare," Hernandez explained. "If you increase the number of younger, healthier people in the Medicare pool, you make it more viable because more money comes into the system."
When it comes to trimming other parts of the federal budget, Denham wants to sell unused properties and Hernandez wants to cut what's paid to military contractors.
"We owe a duty back to the taxpayer to make sure we're selling off the things we don't need," Denham said. He wants to reduce government waste by selling federal buildings that have been sitting vacant or underutilized for years.
Hernandez, by contrast, sees waste in what's paid to private businesses: "There's a lot of savings to be made in terms of government contractors
and indirect military costs that we should not be incurring."
To balance the federal budget, Hernandez said there needs to be a combination of tax increases and budget cuts.
What both men agree on is that Republicans and Democrats must find a way to work together to find solutions.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.
Registered to vote in: Turlock
Political party: Republican
Family: Wife Sonia Marie Denham and two children
Occupation: Member of Congress, owns Denham Plastics in Salinas and an almond orchard in Atwater
Education: Bachelor's degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Campaign contact info: www.DenhamforCongress.com, (209) 200-8683, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reason for seeking election: "Washington is a long way away, but the decisions made there impact our lives every day. As a local farmer and small business owner, I understand the valley's economy and needs and am proud to be the valley's voice in the House of Representatives."
Primary focus: "I am focused on bringing back the valley's economy, creating jobs and economic opportunities. Another priority is to reduce the debt and root waste out of the federal budget. The $16 trillion debt is a threat to the security of our nation. The debt must be reduced and the budget balanced."
What would you do for Stanislaus County?: "I will fight for our local economy, the lifeblood of which is water. We need to increase water storage and supplies to restore and grow our ag-based economy."
What the public should know: "I am a veteran, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for every man and woman who serves our nation in the military. I will always work hard to make sure our veterans receive the care and assistance they need."
Registered to vote in: Modesto
Political party: Democratic
Family: Wife Adela Barragan Hernandez and five children, ages 17, 16, 14, 12 and 9
Occupation: Former astronaut, now self-employed consultant and motivational speaker
Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific and a master's from UC Santa Barbara
Campaign contact info: www.JoseforCongress.com, (209) 214-6701, email@example.com
Reason for seeking election: "At 9 years old, I shared my dream of becoming an astronaut with my father. He told me that with hard work and a good education I could become one because we lived in America.
I have seen the adverse effects the mortgage crisis and high unemployment have had on our valley. Folks are beginning to believe the American dream is no longer attainable. I want to restore confidence that through hard work (it) can be reached."
Primary focus: "To support and author legislation that helps with the continued recovery of our economy.
I am for a disciplined approach to government spending and believe this can be accomplished through a federal government efficiency study and identifying areas that can result in savings."
What would you do for Stanislaus County?: "We must continue to support our local farmers.
We also need to diversify our economy.
I want to establish a
technology development enterprise
(that) would work toward establishing conditions and providing incentives
(to entice Silicon Valley companies) to expand their manufacturing and R&D facilities into the Central Valley."
What the public should know: "I was born and raised in the Central Valley. My family lived in Modesto, Salida, Tracy and settled in Stockton."