Denham and Harder prepare for high-stakes battle as dust settles from primary

Election workers sort ballots Wednesday afternoon June 6, 2018 at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters office in downtown, Modesto, Calif.
Election workers sort ballots Wednesday afternoon June 6, 2018 at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters office in downtown, Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

Does the path to Congress in November for incumbent Jeff Denham or challenger Josh Harder run through third-place finisher Ted Howze?

If people voting for all five Democrats in Tuesday's Primary line up behind Harder in the fall, it won't be enough to unseat Denham, a Republican in the House since 2010. The five Democrats combined for less than 47 percent of Tuesday's vote, according to incomplete returns.

But Denham's margin of victory appears to be shrinking, in historic terms; although his 37.7 percent on Tuesday more than doubled Harder's 15.7 percent, Denham has lost ground from the 59 percent he won in the 2014 Primary, and from his 48 percent in the 2016 Primary.

"It's an embarrassing result for Jeff Denham," Harder said. "I think Howze's success shows Jeff Denham has an awful lot of folks in his party who are deeply dissatisfied."

Politically, Howze ran to the right of Denham — closer to President Donald Trump — and surprised many with a 14.4 percent finish. That isn't enough to advance to November, but Howze trailed Harder by only 850 votes among more than 65,000 cast.

The 10th Congressional District covers Stanislaus County and the southern part of San Joaquin County. Voter registration is split between Republicans and Democrats.

Voters favoring other Democratic candidates on Tuesday's ballot — Michael Eggman (11 percent), Virginia Madueño (9 percent), Sue Zwahlen (8.7 percent) and Mike Barkley (2.5 percent), as well as Dotty Nygard (1 percent) — are expected to swing to Harder in the fall.

"Now it is time we all unite behind Josh Harder," Eggman said Wednesday.

The question seems to be whether Howze's supporters are put off enough by Denham to support a Democrat in November, or simply sit that one out.

"Those (Republican) folks will come home when faced with the prospect of a Democrat who is going to support Nancy Pelosi," said Kevin Spillane. He is a San Diego-based Republican consultant who advised Denham when he campaigned for California Senate many years ago.

Howze, a former Turlock councilman, is "a local fixture, well-known in Republican circles and a credible alternative" to Denham, Spillane said.

Denham, meanwhile, "has always had tough, competitive races," Spillane said. "But he's a fighter, he works his district very hard, he knows it well and he always comes out on top."

Although it's hard to envision the conservative Howze backing a Democrat, he said Wednesday that his fall endorsement isn't a given. When counts from Tuesday are final (surging ahead of Harder is "unlikely, let's be honest," Howze said), he plans to sit down with both candidates for heart-to-heart discussions.

"I'm not convinced at this point," Howze said. "I'm going to do what's best for the valley."

In some ways, the race for November began weeks ago. Despite the crowded field, Denham and Harder — armed with decent polling — seemed to know they eventually would face off and reserved negative campaigning for each other, essentially ignoring the other candidates.

"Nancy Pelosi knows that Jeff Denham ... stands between her and a return to power," a Denham flier said, while Harder mailers portrayed Denham as a literal puppet — marionette in one, ventriloquist dummy in another — of the GOP agenda.

"Mine will be a locally-based campaign rather than one based out of the Bay Area," Denham said. Harder tells supporters that Denham is out of touch with the district's needs and "is no longer trying to pretend that he is even listening to his constituents."

The two men raised far more money than the others: Denham, $2.9 million, and Harder, $1.5 million. Howze, in contrast, said he spent about $150,000, mostly from his own pocket.

Denham and Harder will expect big contributions from their respective parties in the fall run.

The race had a definite Turlock tint; Denham and Harder both hail from the city, Stanislaus County's second-largest behind Modesto, as does Eggman, and Howze's veterinary business is located in Turlock.

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 to run for Congress.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390