Elections

Polls remain close. Is Harder resonating with voters in race against Denham?

Watch Josh Harder talk at senior town hall meeting in Modesto

Josh Harder talks at a town hall meeting at the Central Valley Pipes Trades Center in Modesto, Calif.
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Josh Harder talks at a town hall meeting at the Central Valley Pipes Trades Center in Modesto, Calif.

It’s the halfway point between the June primary and the November general election, and congressional candidates Josh Harder and Jeff Denham have been battling for any advantage in one of the United States’ most competitive House races.

Who is mostly likely to win?

Polls are inconclusive. Here’s a look at four among the most respected:

It’s too close to call, say the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the University of Virginia, both listing the Denham-Harder race for California’s 10th District as a tossup (Cook’s forecast was updated Friday, and Sabato’s on Thursday).

Inside Elections was giving Denham, 51, the Republican incumbent first elected in 2010, a slight edge as of Aug. 17.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, whose “deluxe” version relies on the previous three polls combined with fundraising data and historic trends, on Friday predicted a Harder win with 51.4 percent of the vote, equating to a 2 in 3 chance for the 32-year-old Democratic challenger. The site is updated daily and often fluctuates.

In other words, the outcome is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Anthony Salvanto, the brains behind the CBS Battleground Tracker Poll, raised eyebrows recently with an early prediction that the blue wave expected by many could turn out to be more of a trickle in November. He thinks 85 percent of Republican incumbents, like Denham, will keep their seats, defying the traditional and historic midterm swing away from a president’s party, regardless of which one is in power.

Although the CBS tracker poll doesn’t predict outcomes of individual races, it gathers data for the national forecast from right here in the 10th District, covering Stanislaus County and the southern part of San Joaquin County. We’re that important, because every seat counts when one party wants to wrest control of the House from the other.

Harder himself has been telling supporters that he and Denham are in a virtual dead heat at 48 percent each, based on Democratic polling.

“The best poll,” he tells The Bee, “is what happened in the primary.” At town hall meetings, Harder reminds supporters that far fewer votes were cast for Republican candidates (Denham and Ted Howze) in June (63,442) than two years ago (74,420).

But this year’s primary brought only a combined 58,315 votes to six Democratic candidates, including Harder. That’s 47.9 percent of the vote, to the GOP’s combined 52.1 percent.

It’s clear that the 10th is a battleground district, and much of the battling is being done in social media, where Denham calls his opponent “Bay Area Harder,” and Harder calls his “Do-Nothing Denham.” Denham has used words like “shameful” and “profiteer” to describe Harder, who refers to Denham as a “two-faced politician.” And both have disparaged the other in TV and internet commercials.

Eventually the battle will shift to actual debates. After weeks of negotiating, The Modesto Bee announced Thursday that both men finally agreed to discuss issues before the newspaper’s editorial board at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 20; anyone with a smart phone or computer can stream the event live, or replay it after, on The Bee’s Facebook page.

The Turlock Journal on Friday said plans are coming together for a Sept. 22 forum hosted by that newspaper at the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock, with details to be released soon.

Meanwhile, both candidates have been making appearances throughout the district in past weeks. The Bee has covered a couple recent Denham events and recently visited some of Harder’s “16 town halls in 16 weeks,” meant to display openness in contrast with Denham’s tightly controlled events.

Harder’s camp on Monday invited community leaders to his campaign headquarters. No prominent figures were among the 20 or so people who showed up, and the meeting evolved into strategy brainstorming. Some attendees were not shy about telling Harder his weaknesses.

“Nobody really knows your name in our (Latino community),” Albert Garcia said. “That’s a problem.”

Others agreed. Harder and his staff described many attempts to reach out, with canvassing, phone banks and TV ads. Some in the small crowd urged them to do more, perhaps luring people with doughnuts or hotdogs.

“It’s going to grow,” Harder told them. “You’ll be sick of me by Nov. 6.”

An event the following evening could not have been more different, as a packed crowd greeted him with cheers at Seasons Event Center in Modesto.

Harder, a newly married former venture capitalist now teaching business at Modesto Junior College, spent a lot of time bashing Denham and his voting record. But some in the audience openly wondered about Harder’s actions.

“I love everything you say and stand for,” one woman said, except the fact that Harder missed voting in 17 of 20 elections, in a 12-year span. “I don’t understand how someone can represent us if they’ve never represented themself in voting. That really bothers me.”

Harder fell on his sword. “That was wrong. I was complacent. I’ve always believe in solving problems, and I thought a way of doing that was not politics but through business and teaching,” he said. “I regret it.”

It’s a common ailment among his generation, Harder said, to tune out. But he sees a ray of hope in 3,000 volunteers, 95 percent of whom “have never worked on a campaign before,” he said, but are energized by this one.

Another in the audience noted that Harder did not stand with 1,500 from the district at Monday’s rally at the capitol in Sacramento, where Denham’s political career was launched in 2002 with his election to the state Senate. Denham appeared alongside other dignitaries Monday, protesting the so-called state water grab that could deplete water needed for our area farmers, as well as drinking water for some communities.

In reply, Harder attacked Denham for a recent legislative vote. There are other ways to focus on our needs than being “deeply hypocritical” while “standing at a podium,” Harder said. When he finished, no one clapped.

On Wednesday, Harder began a speech to more than 100 seniors by holding a microphone away from his face and asking in a loud voice if it was really needed, apparently oblivious to his older audience. They asked him to use the mic. And many applauded enthusiastically as he skewered his opponent, time and again.

In this conservative-leaning district, it may be to Harder’s benefit that he’s not well known, said Bob Benedetti, a Sacramento State University research associate, formerly of Stockton’s University of the Pacific.

Also, more people in the 10th District voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. And the president’s anti-immigration policies and tariff wars both could hurt local growers, Benedetti noted.

“So Harder’s problem is himself. Denham’s problem is Trump,” he concluded.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

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