In a local congressional race watched across the United States, Josh Harder appeared to emerge from a pack of Democratic candidates as the one who may challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in November.
As widely expected, Denham, first elected to the House in 2010, coasted to top position with 37.7 percent of Tuesday’s vote, according to returns early Wednesday with 100 percent of the precincts reporting.
With 15.7 percent, Harder was edging Republician Ted Howze (14.4 percent) and beating three other Democrats.
As of Tuesday night, Harder said he was feeling good about early results, although a complete count remained far off.
Denham said it doesn't matter who his opponent is.
"My strategy won't change at all," he said. "I'll focus on immigration and water, which are the top two issues in my district."
Howze, who entered the race at the last minute, surprised many by nearly matching Harder.
Some Democrats had accused Republicans of trying to game the top-two primary system by inserting the conservative Howze (say HOWS) in hopes of squeezing out all Democrats.
Another late entry, Michael Eggman, had lost to Denham in the 2014 and 2016 elections. His attempt at consolidating fractured Democratic support in the 10th Congressional District, covering Stanislaus County and the south part of San Joaquin County, appeared to fail. He captured 11 percent of the vote.
With 9 percent of the vote, former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño was fifth, followed by Democrat and former Modesto school board member Sue Zwahlen (8.7) and Manteca’s Michael Barkley (2.8 percent). Dotty Nygard dropped out of the race three months ago, but her name still appeared on the ballot and she captured 1 percent.
The race has national implications, with Democrats hoping to retake the House majority in November. The 10th Congressional District is considered among the most competitive in the country, with about equal parts Republican and Democrat; Hillary Clinton won more votes here than Donald Trump in 2016.
Media from across the country have tuned in to the race, especially since Denham in recent weeks began bucking his own party leadership in an unsual move to force a House vote on immigration policy. Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the district; Denham speaks Spanish and his wife is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant.
Denham and Harder both hail from Turlock and raised far more money than the others — $2.9 million and $1.5 million, respectively — enabling them to buy costly television ads. They’ve been bashing each other in fliers and interviews, with Harder portraying Denham as a GOP puppet and Denham casting Harder as an outsider representing Nancy Pelosi’s interests.
Howze, a veterinarian, was a Turlock councilman from 2006 to 2010 but since has moved to Stockton. Congressional candidates don't have to live within the districts they seek to represent.
Denham, 50, owns a small almond orchard and a business building plastic farm containers. Harder, 31, has degrees from Stanford and Harvard and was a venture capitalist before returning to the valley to teach a class at Modesto Junior College and run for Congress.
Whether Democrats will finally unite behind one candidate is the big question.
"We've run the strongest campaign possible," Harder said. "I hope it gets us all the way there, and I think it will."
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390