Harder and Denham — a fight to the finish

Campaign mailers for congressional district 10 are pictured in the Modesto Bee photo studio on October 26, 2018.
Campaign mailers for congressional district 10 are pictured in the Modesto Bee photo studio on October 26, 2018. jlee@modbee.com

Denham or Harder?

If you live in the 10th District and haven’t yet decided — despite the endless barrage of television ads and campaign pieces crammed in your mailbox — you could be in the minority.

“People have picked a side, whether or not they’re willing to publicly say it,” Keith Smith, an associate political science professor with Stockton’s University of the Pacific, said in an interview.

What makes him think that?

Just look at those commercials and mailers. The majority, by far, are negative hit-pieces meant to stir emotion. Such are aimed at mobilizing a candidate’s own base, as opposed to trying to win over the few undecideds left in this race, widely regarded as among the most competitive House contests in the United States.

Undecideds might even be turned off enough to tune out and not vote. And that would be fine with strategists on either side.

“The logic of negative campaigning is unfortunately solid,” said Bob Benedetti, a Sacramento State University research associate, in an interview. “It suppresses the middle, and fires up the two bases.”

Relentless ads portray Jeff Denham, the Republican incumbent, as uncaring about pre-existing medical conditions and more interested in enriching his cronies. Others cast Democratic challenger Josh Harder as a liberal aligned with Nancy Pelosi and the Bay Area. Both sides have mocked the other, Photoshopping their opponent’s faces into embarrassing, cartoonish scenes.

Most are bankrolled by either party or political action committees. The GOP’s goal is to retain control of the House, despite a historic trend disfavoring the president’s party in midterm elections, while Democrats hope to ride a blue wave come Nov. 6.

The ads, as well as Tweets, press releases and other communication, have resorted to name calling. Denham even called his opponent “Bay Area Harder” in September debates; Harder, who initially referred to his opponent as “do-nothing Denham,” lately has been using “disappointing Denham.”

One thing we haven’t seen much of in this race: Trump bashing. Harder often points out that Denham sides with GOP policies in almost all of his congressional votes. But Harder largely has avoided evoking the president, and there is a strategic reason for it.

“There will be some Trump people who Harder doesn’t want to antagonize,” Benedetti said. “Just by mentioning Trump, you embolden his supporters (to defend him at the polls).”

The nonstop ads and mailers are costly, of course. It’s interesting to note how much money the candidates have raised for their campaigns — Denham: $4.5 million; Harder $7 million — but it’s not entirely helpful because both parties and wealthy PACs are pouring millions more into the hard-fought race.

“Both sides have lots of money, big warchests, and they’re spending it,” said Larry Giventer, a political science professor emeritus at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, the city claimed by both candidates as their home base.

Are power brokers finally giving the Northern San Joaquin Valley the attention it deserves?

Not exactly. It’s more a numbers game; Democrats need to flip 24 seats to regain control of the House, and they long ago decided that Harder represents one of their best chances. Voters in the 10th District — Stanislaus County, and the south part of San Joaquin County — favored Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the last two presidential elections.

Latinos make up about 45 percent of the district’s population, and they typically favor Democrats. But Denham has blunted that edge, appealing to many Latino voters in past elections; he speaks Spanish, and his wife is Latina.

Valley farmers also need migrants for fieldwork. For personal and political reasons, Denham went out a limb earlier this year, defying his party leaders with an attempt to force House voting on immigration reform. It didn’t work, but it’s not clear whether people view the effort as a big failure, as Harder contends, or a good try, as Denham prefers to think of it.

Trump handed Denham two water victories in the past two weeks, with a presidential memorandum seen as helpful to thirsty California farmers and then signing Denham legislation providing funding for water projects. Supporters beamed with pride, while detractors saw photo ops calculated for maximum political gain just before the midterms.

Denham, 51, owns a Salinas-based company that provides farms with plastic containers. His family lives near Washington, D.C., and they own a home in Turlock and a small almond orchard in Atwater. He is an Air Force veteran and represented this area in the state Senate before his election to Congress in 2010.

Harder, meanwhile, has closed out the last of his 16 town halls in 16 weeks. They’re meant to contrast with Denham’s reluctance to host meetings open to all with question-answer periods. Harder’s last town hall drew interrupting hecklers.

Harder, 32, has never held elective office and rarely voted before deciding to run for Congress. He was a venture capitalist in Boston, New York City and San Francisco before returning to the Valley to teach business at Modesto Junior College.

Harder finished ahead of five other Democratic candidates in the June Primary, including Michael Eggman, who had lost to Denham in 2014 and 2016. The combined primary vote for Democrats came to 47.9 percent, while Denham and fellow Republican Ted Howze (who came in third) combined for 52.1 percent.

A few weeks ago, the Denhams celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, and Harder married his longtime girlfriend. The opponents congratulated each other in social media.

Denham and Republicans note that most of Harder’s campaign money comes from the Bay Area, and have characterized him as too liberal for the Valley. Harder and Democrats point out that most of Denham’s campaign money comes from corporate PACs and special interests, and they accuse him of breaking promises to constituents here with his votes in Washington, D.C., particularly regarding health care and the GOP’s attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

More evidence that Harder-Denham is a big deal: polling, and experts weighing in.

The latest poll, by the New York Times, was completed late Thursday and suggests a near-dead heat, predicting Harder could get 47 percent of the vote, and Denham, 45 percent, while acknowledging a 4.9-percent margin of error that renders meaningless any perceived advantage.

Times pollsters, working with Siena College, called 25,803 people in the 10th District to get 501 respondents. In addition to its bottom-line prediction, the survey presents six alternative scenarios, each weighted differently to depict what might happen based on actual turnout. Denham would barely win in two of those scenarios, which assume that the same types of people who voted in 2014 and 2016 show up again this year. Harder would prevail under the other scenarios using other methods to guess who is likely to vote.

A poll in late June by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, hired by Democrats, found Harder and Denham deadlocked at 48 percent each, and an independent UC Berkeley poll in late September favored Harder with 50 percent, giving Denham 45 percent with 5 percent undecided.

Nationally recognized experts aren’t much help. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight for several weeks have given Harder an edge, while the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and the University of Virginia’s Center of Politics (Sabato’s Crystal Ball) all rate the race as a toss-up.

If nothing else, people here might feel that we’ve arrived on a national political scene most often reserved to the East Coast and big urban centers.

“We’re getting a taste, and it has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with national political disagreements,” UOP’s Smith said.

“At least,” he added, “they’re pumping millions into the local economy, buying those ads.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

You might vote for Jeff Denham because

You tend to vote for Republicans and conservatives.

You want the GOP to retain control of the House.

You believe he’s represented the district well.

He defied party bosses in an attempt to reform immigration policy.

He wants to do away with Obamacare.

You appreciated his vote for tax reform.

He supports veterans and farmers, and opposes high-speed rail.

You might vote for Josh Harder because

You tend to vote for Democrats and progressives.

You’d like to see Democrats regain control of the House.

You think he’ll be more accessible than the incumbent.

He favors affordable health care and access for people with pre-existing conditions.

He’s well-educated, with degrees from Stanford and Harvard.

He has been a successful businessman.

He was raised in the Valley.

You might vote against Jeff Denham because

He has favored GOP policies in 97.8 percent of his votes in Congress.

Most of his campaign money comes from corporate PACs and special interests.

He hasn’t held a real town hall meeting since April 2017.

He told constituents here he would protect MediCal and people with pre-existing conditions, but reversed course a week later with a vote in Washington, D.C.

He didn’t come through on immigration reform.

You believe his vote for tax reform will end up costing Californians.

He calls himself a farmer but leases his small Atwater orchard to another grower.

He is closely linked to coastal areas while criticizing his opponent for the same thing.

You might vote against Josh Harder because

You believe his values are aligned with the Bay Area and Nancy Pelosi.

He doesn’t have experience in elective office.

He didn’t vote in 17 of 20 elections, until he decided to run for Congress.

He once favored late-term abortions.

He skipped an important rally protesting the state water grab.

Most of his campaign money comes from the Bay Area.

He favors government-run health care.

You don’t trust a former venture capitalist.