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2020 General Election Preview: 21st Congressional District

California Globe takes an inside look into the close San Joaquin Valley race Cox vs. Valadeo

By Evan Symon, October 16, 2020 6:35 am

The 21st Congressional District stretches from southern Fresno all the way to northern Bakersfield and sort of encompasses the San Joaquin Valley in between. The districting here has made the 21st among the more unique of the Congressional districts in California, if not the United States.

How so? Well, first of all, the district is the poorest in California, with the average income only being around $40,000. That’s due to agriculture being king here: most of the district is agriculture oriented. While many crops are grown here, some, like almonds, are very important. Most of the world’s almonds are grown within the district.

CA 21st Congressional District.

That leads to another unique factor: over 70% of the district is Hispanic. Even more unusual? Many Hispanics in this district lean Republican. And that makes agriculture, land use, and immigration the issues of most concern in the 21st.

After redistricting in 2013, former Republican Congressman David Valadao emerged as the winner of the district. Even as more Democrats came into the district, Valadao managed to keep healthy margins in each election, always staying above 55%, and bringing in all of those right-leaning but non-Republican registered voters in. Each election the Democrats had underestimated how many farm workers felt about strong farms and wanting to bring water into the area for farms to flourish. Even in 2016, with harder stances on immigration occurring in many elections nationwide, Valadao still won.

Then came the 2018 blue wave mid-term. Democrat TJ Cox (D-Fresno) won a controversial election by less than 1,000 votes. It turned out to be one of the biggest upsets of the midterms, with many Democrats even being surprised by the victory.

Left-leaning candidates in major races tend to win by around 3% to 5% of the vote in the 21st district, with the exception of Clinton in 2016 who won by a large margin. However, Valadao has remained popular in the district. So much so that he’s running again in 2020 and is trying to retake the seat that both he and the GOP still feel was stolen from them two years ago.

Congressman TJ Cox. (Photo: Twitter)

T.J. Cox – The incumbent Congressman, T.J. Cox, has found himself in one of the most watched congressional races of the year for his second race in the row. Cox is the creator of the Central Valley Fund charity and was a nut processing businessman for decades. Prior to 2018, he had run in the 2006 Congressional race against former Congressman George Radanovich, but lost. Cox didn’t run for another 12 years, and somehow managed to pull off an upset two years ago to win the Congressional seat.

In his two years in the House, Cox has focused mainly on natural resources and agricultural issues, although he has weighed in on issues when it affects him personally. Earlier this year, Cox voted against a bill that require members of Congress to disclose tax liens after he himself had a lien put on him by the IRS. And that was only after it was found out that he had failed to pay his own workers for two years straight. And that had caused him to file for bankruptcy. And, as if it couldn’t get any messier, he has also received passes from the National Park Service ahead of others who were on a wait list at the same time he was on Natural Resource Committees.

His voting record and organization ratings have him pegged as an on-brand Democrat, voting party line on nearly everything except when it comes to matters of agriculture, such as getting water for the Central Valley.

Besides agriculture and immigration, Cox has railed on issues ranging from seniors to healthcare to education. Unions and organizations for all of those issues tend to give him high marks.

However, Cox has been falling in recent weeks. His campaign recently manufactured a tweet about Valadao to damage him, but caught a backdraft when they were caught. While it’s no Watergate, it has pegged him as dishonest in the eyes of many voters, and right around the time of mail-in ballots being cast more and more at that. This is what people in the district are seeing, and you can see the effect in the polls as Valadao is now leading by as much as 11% with only a few weeks to go.

David Valadao – Despite only being in his early 40’s, David Valadao has already led a distinguished political career. Starting off working on a dairy farm, he moved up to the California Milk Advisory Board in the 2000’s. This won him enough kudos to be elected to the state Assembly in 2010, moving up to the House only two years later. Defeated in 2018, Valadao is out for revenge in 2020, which has been easy since the Cox campaign keeps shooting itself in the foot.

Former Congressman David Valadao (Photo: Ballotpedia)

Prior to being ousted, Valadao was known as one of President Trump’s major supporters. While he did cool off on Trump a little bit, he was a big fan of Trump’s plans for releasing water to farmers in California. On voting, he stayed close to his GOP roots, and even helped pass immigration reform measures. But anytime agricultural issues came up, he took notice. After 2018, Valadao made a renewed effort in the district and became more moderate to appeal to immigrant farm workers wanting greater access to healthcare and other needs.

Businesses love him and give him high marks, and despite low rankings from many agricultural worker groups, many still love the guy for helping them keep their jobs. On most traditional issues through, Valadao is the opposite of Cox.

Valadao has obviously studied the Cox’s strategy, as he weighs in on most of his issues on his platform. What’s new though is his push on immigration, highlighting the fact that he is the son of immigrants. His message of keeping farms open, bringing them water, and pumping the breaks on many of his former hardline immigration stances is working. Also, he is pushing for energy, a potentially big industry in the valley once green energy construction really starts up in the state.

Besides leaning more moderate while retaining conservative values, the other big help has been Cox himself turning his 2020 run into something resembling a sitcom character’s run for office. Like Cox, Valadeo is has also had difficulties when it comes to personal finances, with his family farm in bankruptcy proceedings in 2018.

But, unlike Cox, even that can work in his favor as being known as one of the few non-millionaire major party House members running in 2020. Even his mistakes, which have been very few, make him look good.

What does this mean?

Valadao will win the seat back. Cox showed that he couldn’t handle Washington, and can’t really handle a regional campaign either. There will be more of a Democratic push in 2020 due to the Presidential election, but 21st District voters have been shown to not be swayed too much by trends and to vote for each office on the candidates merits rather than party.

Oh, and that 11 point lead Valadao has? That came from a poll in September, before the Tweeting scandal came out. So he’s likely winning by a lot more now.

Democrats can win in the district. That’s not up for debate. After all, TJ won two years ago and there are a lot of Democrat voters. But if the choice is between a moderate Republican with a good record on local issues and a Democrat who only makes the news because of personal or campaign problems, voters will go with the stable guy with a good track record, even if there are a few more things they disagree with.

The GOP should at least take back this district next month.

Evan Symon
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