Is Denham bucking party leadership to score political points at home?

Jeff Denham, center, is on the Capitol steps with Rep. Will Hurd to discuss their efforts to protect the Dreamers from deportation.
Jeff Denham, center, is on the Capitol steps with Rep. Will Hurd to discuss their efforts to protect the Dreamers from deportation. Roll Call

For more than two weeks, U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham has been splashed in national news almost daily for his role in a debate on immigration reform, appearing on virtually every major television channel and in scads of print media from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times.

It's impossible to buy that kind of publicity. Especially in a heated political race to represent the 10th Congressional District covering Stanislaus County and south San Joaquin County.

"If he succeeds, (the free publicity) affects the campaign tremendously," said Mike Lynch. He's a local campaign consultant who used to be chief of staff to former Congressman Gary Condit, a Democrat from Ceres.

Three weeks ago, Denham, a Turlock Republican, was struggling to stay in the news, with a couple of mentions for opposing California's bullet train. He's been a daily fixture since, thanks to immigration and a rare but attention-grabbing challenge to his own party's leadership.

Denham is leading a charge to gain enough support in the House for a discharge petition to force debate and possible action on four different immigration reform bills. The specter of embarrassing House Speaker Paul Ryan on a high-profile issue important to the White House has proven irresistible to the likes of Bloomberg, CNN and National Public Radio, not to mention USA Today, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal and even Breitbart.

"It's so unusual an action, for leadership to be taken on like that," Lynch said.

Several news agencies note that Denham represents a district that preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, with a Latino constituency of more than 40 percent. The top two vote-getters in June, regardless of party, will advance to the November ballot.

The five Democrats and one Republican trying to oust Denham on the approaching June 5 ballot are less impressed.

"This absolutely reeks of desperation," said Ted Howze, the other Republican. He has a far-right stance on immigration, opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants and insisting on border security such as a Mexican border wall, a mainstay of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.

"Most people feel (Denham) is selling out our president's strategy," Howze said. He thinks Denham wants support from moderates, including Democrats, more than he fears retribution from a lame-duck speaker; Ryan will retire in November.

Democratic candidates also are skeptical about Denham's motives, although none shares Howze's conservative views. If Denham were genuine in his desire to help Dreamers, or about 700,000 children of immigrants who arrived here illegally, the Democrats say, he would have done more since assuming his seat in 2010.

"This is nothing more than an election year stunt," said Michael Eggman. Sue Zwahlen called it "cynical posturing" and a "phony stance on Dreamers."

"If he is sincere, then good for him," Mike Barkley said. Virginia Madueño said, "Jeff Denham may be discussing immigration legislation on a daily basis during campaign season, but so far has done nothing with his actions in the past eight years."

Josh Harder said, "A handful of press releases can't mask the fact that he plays politics just to protect himself."

Denham's opponents have criticized him as distant and unapproachable. It's been more than a year since his last town hall meeting, and despite his many recent media interviews and appearances, Denham this year has refused to speak with Modesto Bee reporters about his campaign.

His critics say Denham is out of touch with district priorities, having voted for tax reform with questionable outcomes for Californians, and for an effort to abolish the Affordable Care Act.

All that might be true, said Larry Giventer, political science professor emeritus at California State University, Stanislaus. But the power of name recognition, even if boosted in a late scrap with party leadership, is undeniable, he said.

"It's good timing for (Denham)," Giventer said. "If he can peel off just enough support for his immigration stance, it seems to put him in good stead for the election season."

Denham in recent days has told reporters that the move to force Ryan's hand through a so-called "queen of the hill" rule might not be needed after all.

The prospect of a forced debate has prompted negotiations on compromise legislation that may prove more palatable to House Republicans when they return to Washington in a week. Also, they know that whatever they come up with will need to clear the Senate and meet with White House approval to avoid a Trump veto.

A compromise bill could be presented to House Republicans June 7, negating the discharge petition.

What the candidates are saying:

"We have blown past too many deadlines already. It is time that Congress do its job and get a solution for Dreamers and border security through the House and Senate and onto the President’s desk." - Jeff Denham, Republican incumbent, in May 25 newsletter

"We're seeing support for our campaign (among Republicans) because of Denham's publicity about amnesty (for illegal immigrants). And Democrats in District 10 hate Jeff Denham. This absolutely reeks of desperation." - Ted Howze, Republican candidate

"Jeff Denham's cynical posturing on this issue that is vitally important to so many immigrant families highlights why I'm running for Congress: People are tired of politicians who do nothing on important issues, who are afraid to meet with their constituents to discuss their views and then, suddenly, when it's election time they act like they are taking a stand on a critical issue." - Sue Zwahlen, Democratic candidate

"Jeff Denham may be discussing immigration legislation on a daily basis during campaign season but so far has done nothing with his actions in the past eight years. He has not affected our campaign. We continue to be strong in our message and support and will do so until election day. " - Virginia Madueño, Democratic candidate

"In 2010, Jeff Denham agreed that undocumented immigrants should be deported, in 2013 he opposed comprehensive immigration reform, and over the last year he consistently refused to support a clean DREAM Act. A handful of press releases can’t mask the fact that he plays politics just to protect himself." - Josh Harder, Democratic candidate

"All I can say is talk is cheap. Let's not forget when Jeff Denham first ran for Congress he said we should deport 11 million undocumented folks. Since he has been in Congress, he has a long record of pretending to support immigration reform and then doing nothing. This is nothing more than an election year stunt, which voters see right through." - Michael Eggman, Democratic candidate

"Various candidates, including me, have been after Denham since 2014 to step up to his duty to the local immigrant population and the agricultural community and pursue a discharge petition to get immigration reform before the House. If he is sincere in his efforts, then good for him. I would be happy to see my doubts about his sincerity be untrue." - Mike Barkley, Democratic candidate

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390