The Democrats believe Jeff Denham is beatable in 2018.
They think his support of President Trump and reticence to face the public in a town hall meeting until several months after the election make him vulnerable. They feel they can capitalize on the blowback against conservatives displayed in town halls across the county, and can benefit from a resurgence of political activism largely dormant since the turbulent 1960s.
If it simply came down to a one-question quiz – California is a “right-to-work: state: Yes or No? – they might be right. During the Government Night event in Denair last month, Denham botched that one badly and the loud crowd set him straight. No, Rep. Denham, California is not a “right to work” state even though unions aren’t as strong as they once were. His gaffe was like a minor-league version of President Trump’s recent spin on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, which was a head scratcher to most sixth graders.
But it will take more than that – or Denham’s flip-flopping on today’s Republican-driven Obamacare replacement plan vote, admitting to the existence of man-made climate change but voting against it anyway, or anything else that fuels his detractors – for a Democrat to unseat him. It will take a candidate with some panache and most importantly the financial backing of the Democratic Party to do so. That is something Denham’s opponents lacked in recent years, and they certainly can expect the GOP to max out the debit card to retain the seat.
The national party didn’t get behind Michael Eggman, Denham’s opponent in 2014 or 2016, even though Eggman gained on Denham in the percentage of votes from their first face-off to the next. Nor did the party write a blank check to back Jose Hernandez, a University of the Pacific grad and former astronaut, who lost to Denham in 2012.
So who will take on Denham, and will that candidate get the party’s full support?
Hernandez is making the kinds of public appearances that would suggest he might be gearing up to challenge Denham again next year, though he hasn’t yet declared. And recently, when I asked former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño if she planned to run, she replied, “I’m listening ... ” but hasn’t publicly committed, either.
Two Democrats did announce their candidacies in the past week, though: Dotty Nygard of Tracy, who served briefly with Madueño on the Riverbank City Council, and Josh Harder of Turlock, who once volunteered in Denham’s Modesto office when Denham was a California state senator and Harder attended Modesto High.
Nygard, 60, is a registered nurse running, per her Facebook campaign page, because she wants to “... bring back the caring, compassion, and community that is often lost in the mundane, indifferent, business-as-usual culture in Washington and our Political establishment.”
Named one of Stanislaus County’s outstanding women in 2013, she led the unsuccessful recall effort against Riverbank City Councilman Jesse James White and his grandfather, Dave White, in 2009. A year later, she ran for the Riverbank council and won a seat, but stayed only three years of her four-year term before resigning and moving to Tracy, where she now lives.
Harder, 30, is a political neophyte. He comes from a family with Valley ties stretching back more than 175 years. Harder graduated from Stanford in four years, went on to get another degree from Harvard Business School in 2014 and returned to the Valley where he is a venture capitalist.
He said the fact Denham drew 1,000 people to the Denair town hall – many to voice their opposition to overturning the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare – spoke volumes.
“I want to do what’s best for the Central Valley,” Harder said. “I don’t think the withdrawing healthcare for 100,000 people in the district is the best thing. In fact, we should be doubling down on the Medicare and preexisting conditions provisions.”
Yet, while Harder, Nygard and any other Democrat who enters the race will pound on Denham, they aren’t running against him just yet. Right now, they are running against each other for the financial backing of the Democratic Party nationally.
Without it, beating him will difficult even in this volatile political climate.