Jeff Jardine

Denham inspiring the base, but which one more? Conservative or liberal?

U.S. Representative Jeff Denham speaks with the media at his campaign office in Modesto Calif., on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
U.S. Representative Jeff Denham speaks with the media at his campaign office in Modesto Calif., on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. aalfaro@modbee.com

If nothing else, Rep. Jeff Denham is motivating the base.

But which one? Try both.

His conservative Republican friends won’t waver in their support. They want him to back President Donald Trump. They want him to vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And here in the Valley, where agriculture relies on immigrant farm labor, he can oppose the harshness of Trump’s immigration crackdown and be able to say, “Hey, I tried.”

The conservatives will rally if for no other reason than to combat the Democrats and their liberal base, which locally has protested Denham’s support of repealing the ACA (Obamacare), and Trump’s immigration policy. Will the farmers who so thoroughly supported Trump and Denham continue to do so if the immigration crackdown decimates the availability of farmworkers?

About 200 people held a vigil in Denham’s Turlock neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. They’ve protested over heath care and senior issues at his Modesto office. On Monday, he granted small groups of constituents 20-minute-long audiences in which they could discuss presubmitted topics. Outside, another group staged a “die-in” in front his office, depicting people who become victims if they can no longer afford health insurance.

And they’ve demanded he hold a town hall meeting akin to the ones Rep. Tom Clintock, R-Elk Grove, hosted before loud and emotional crowds in Roseville, Mariposa, Sonora and El Dorado Hills. They want Denham to answer the concerns of all constituents, not merely the friendlies. He told the audience during a telephone session last week that one is forthcoming, to be co-hosted by rookie Republican State Assemblyman Heath Flora.

All that stated, members of Congress are elected to two-year terms. No sooner do they settle into the term than they are campaigning again. In fact, it never really ends. Congressional representatives don’t benefit as much from the voters’ short memories as do senators, presidents or any elected to longer terms. So is Denham vulnerable – and even beatable – in 2018?

The Democrats certainly think so. He is one of seven Californians on the list of 61 Republican representatives nationally they will target in the next election. Targeting means pouring money into the challengers’ campaigns. But unseating Denham here will take more than money. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4,000 on the Stanislaus County voter rolls, more than 45,000 don’t declare a party preference.

Swaying them will take a candidate with some name recognition. It will take a Democrat who has the conservative fiscal leanings of Gary Condit, who lost his seat in 2002. Hugely popular in the district, Condit fell from grace after being linked romantically to Chandra Levy, the former Bureau of Prisons intern who vanished in 2001. His former staffer, Dennis Cardoza, ran against him and won, holding the 18th District seat for five terms before stepping down.

Denham won the seat – now the 10th Congressional District – by beating astronaut and Stockton Democrat Jose Hernandez by 11,331 votes in 2012. Then Denham easily beat Michael Eggman by 15,459 votes in 2014. But in November, after failing to define his stances on Trump and the controversies that arose during the presidential campaign, Denham suddenly looked more vulnerable. His margin of victory this time shriveled by five percentage points.

Will either Eggman or Hernandez run again? Neither is saying. Eggman didn’t return calls and Hernandez is vacationing in Mexico and couldn’t be reached for comment. And would either wow the electorate any more than in their previous campaigns? Two others are considering campaigns, according to Patty Hughes, who heads the Democratic Women’s Club of Stanislaus County. But they haven’t decided and wouldn’t announce their candidacies for another couple of months if they do, she said. The only one who has announced is Michael Barkley, a Democrat who ran unsuccessful campaigns in the past three elections.

State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, who will term out in 2020, said she has no desire to run for national office.

“No, thank you,” she said, citing wanting to stay close to home and family, including her parents. “I have zero plans to run for Congress. I was asked to some years ago, but I declined then and I’d decline now. I’ll be looking for something in Sacramento.”

She is exploring a seat on the state Board of Equalization instead.

Regardless, the next election is less than two years away, and while the voters might be worn out from more than two years of presidential debates, primaries and the vicious general election, the Democrats see a window of opportunity in the 10th Congressional District.

Ultimately, it could come down to the party with the more energized base, and both could become pretty energetic.

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