MODESTO -- Rep. Jeff Denham cruised to an easy victory Tuesday in the 10th Congressional District.
The Turlock Republican called it "an exciting night" as returns showed him nearly nine percentage points ahead of Democratic challenger Jose Hernandez. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Denham had 54.7 percent of the vote to Hernandez's 45.3.
The newly drawn 10th District includes all of Stanislaus County, plus Escalon, Ripon, Manteca and Tracy.
Denham and Hernandez had been locked in a caustic campaign dominated by TV attack ads financed by national political action committees.
But the key to his success, Denham insisted, was that he and his volunteers worked harder than Hernandez on the ground, walking precincts and talking with constituents.
"Having Nancy Pelosi running a campaign against me was a challenge," Denham said. San Francisco Rep. Pelosi is the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives. Denham's campaign long had contended Pelosi was pulling Hernandez's strings and orchestrating the funding of his election effort.
"They (national Democratic organizations) were trying to buy the campaign from the outside," Denham said.
Hernandez did not return calls for comment Tuesday night and stayed in a back room at a party held for Democratic candidates in downtown Modesto.
Early Tuesday evening, Hernandez's campaign manager, Dan Krupnick, expressed hope his candidate might pull ahead once votes cast at the polls were counted, rather than just the mailed-in ballots. But that didn't happen.
While the election might be over, Denham insisted he will continue to press a libel lawsuit against those who financed and profited from a TV ad attacking his support for veterans.
Denham, who served 16 years in the Air Force, said the ad maliciously misrepresented his congressional voting record. He filed a federal lawsuit two weeks ago against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that produced it and the TV stations that continued to broadcast it.
"We're going to prove to both parties that you cannot lie and get away with it," Denham said.
A negative campaign
The negative advertising that dominated the airwaves this fall was an indication of how badly Republicans and Democrats wanted to win the 10th District.
It is one of California's most politically balanced districts, with registered voters being about 40 percent Democrats, 39 percent Republicans, 17 percent with no party preference and the rest split among minor parties.
Denham was elected two years ago to represent the old 19th District, which includes a far more conservative swath of five counties. Eastern Stanislaus County is in that district, with the rest of the county being represented by Democrat Dennis Cardoza, who resigned last summer.
Because neither major party had a clear voter advantage in the new 10th District, Republicans and Democrats made winning it a national priority. And they backed that up with more than $8.2 million in partisan spending by independent political action committees.
Denham also received $2.3 million in contributions to his campaign, and Hernandez collected $1.5 million. That means more than $12 million was spent trying to sway the district's 233,000 registered voters.
The vast majority of that money came from outside the region, and most of it was spent buying attack ads on Sacramento TV stations. Both sides also flooded voter mailboxes with campaign fliers, many of which had a negative focus.
Hernandez, 50, and Denham, 45, participated in only one public debate, so voters had relatively few opportunities to ask them questions or compare their views on issues important to the valley.
The candidates had to convince voters of their commitment to the district, considering neither of them lived here until recently.
Denham spends most his time in Virginia with his wife and two children. He had called Atwater his home before moving into a Turlock rental house last fall.
Hernandez, who grew up near Stockton, spent the past decade in Houston, where he worked for NASA as an astronaut before the space shuttle program ended last year.
After deciding to run for Congress, Hernandez rented a room in a Modesto home for several months. In October, he moved into a new Manteca house with his wife and five children.
Ties to agriculture
The two candidates both touted their ties to agriculture.
Hernandez's parents are Mexican immigrants who worked as migrant farm laborers throughout the Central Valley. He frequently told stories about how he helped them work the fields as a child.
Denham grew up in a Salinas farming family. He still leases a 20-acre almond orchard in Atwater, manages a sweet potato warehouse and owns a Salinas company that provides plastic containers for agricultural products.
When he returns to Washington, D.C., Denham will be joined by several other Central Valley incumbents who appeared headed to re-election.
In the hard-fought and expensive battle for the 9th District, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton beat Republican businessman Ricky Gill of Lodi 54 percent to 46 with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
That Democrat-dominated district includes parts of San Joaquin, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties. McNerney was outspent by Gill.
McNerney was elected to represent the old 11th District in 2006. He raised about $2.2 million to defend his seat this election, but Gill gathered more than $2.6 million from donors.
Independent political action committees also spent nearly $3.9 million on that race, much of which went toward TV ads attacking McNerney.
Two other House incumbents Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, easily were winning their newly configured districts.
Costa outdistanced Republican challenger Brian Whelan for the right to represent the 16th Congressional District, which includes Merced County and parts of Madera and Fresno counties.
Costa, who has represented the 20th District since 2004, raised twice as much money as his opponent. He also had the benefit of running in a heavily Democratic district.
McClintock, as expected, walked away with the overwhelmingly Republican 4th District, which includes Tuolumne, Calaveras, Mariposa and parts of seven other counties. His campaign had 30 times more money to spend than his challenger, Democrat Jack Uppal.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.