National News

In California’s Farm Country, the Tide of ‘Resistance’ Runs Dry

Posted May 29, 2018 3:39 p.m. EDT

VISALIA, Calif. — Amid neat rows of orchards, on cattle ranches and dairy farms across the southern territory of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the churn of daily life offers few hints of an imminent political spectacle. This is another California, where conservative values are often taken for granted, and where the tide of liberal “resistance” runs as dry as its unirrigated dirt.

Consider Rep. Devin Nunes, in the state’s 22nd Congressional District. He has become a lightning rod on the left over his animated defense of President Donald Trump in the investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 election. Yet as national Democrats spend millions of dollars trying to seize Republicans seats in California in the midterms, noisy advertising and political commotion ahead of the June 5 primary appear to have scarcely penetrated the minds of voters in this part of the state.

In 2016, the 22nd District overwhelmingly went for Trump, and voters are quick to write off criticism of Nunes, whose family farming background many closely relate to, as television spin and partisan bickering.

On a sunny day on Visalia’s quiet main street, Will Dixon, 41, said he believes Nunes has “done a lot for the valley” and its farmers. Dixon, who has lived in the area his entire life, said that he heard some grumbling on television about Nunes becoming a character in the Russia investigation, but said he feels that the congressman has shown he is committed to his constituents.

“I think that was just politics,” he said. “I’m really happy we have someone like Devin Nunes. I have high hopes in the future for what he’s going to do for the valley.”

Nunes' Republican peers in the region, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy in the 23rd District to the southeast, inspire similar defenses, and are widely considered safe in their bids for re-election. Even Rep. David Valadao, a Republican dairy farmer in the 21st District to the west, an agrarian area where Hillary Clinton trounced Trump, drew just one competitor — a Democrat — this year.

The broader Central Valley is the state’s major agricultural core; larger than some states in size, and with agriculture production nearly twice that of Iowa, it is one of the most productive and important farming regions in the United States. Agriculture is a $50 billion industry here in the state, and jobs related to farming help make California the fifth-largest economy in the world.

To say that residents across Nunes' boomerang-shaped territory rely heavily on an agriculture economy is an understatement; Tulare County, part of the district, is one of the most productive farm counties in the entire United States. That much is obvious even from a short drive along Highway 99, where fruit trees border the road.

And although within California it is common to pit north versus south, the sharp cultural divisions between the valley and more coastal regions, between rural and urban locales, are in many ways more significant.

Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, said that the rural communities that live across the southern San Joaquin Valley must often fight for attention and can be overshadowed by large urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In a region that feels neglected by other parts of the state, farmers identify strongly with representatives who understand their needs and can speak the language of their burdens.

“It’s really hard for our voices to be heard, so we do appreciate what our current congressional members bring to the table. Most of them are very well versed in agriculture and water issues, and they understand what a rural farm economy looks like,” she said, pointing to Valadao’s efforts to expand access to water in the San Joaquin Valley in particular.

As a matter of political calculation, it would make little sense for farming groups or farmers themselves to rankle incumbent members of Congress who they feel are in tune with their communities, especially those who are becoming more powerful in Washington. But not all are satisfied with the status quo.

Earlier this month, the Fight Back California Political Action Committee went up with billboards in the district knocking Nunes for his ties to Trump and making the case that he has neglected his constituents. In quick succession, three billboards along Highway 99 south of Fresno ask, “Why is Devin Nunes hot on Russia... While farmers get burned by a trade war with China? Congressman Nunes, how could you forget us?”

Katie Merrill, the group’s executive director, said that internal polling in Nunes' district suggests there is an opening to attack the congressman. She said Nunes' ties to Trump will not dissuade voters — Trump won there by about 10 percentage points — but that Democrats can make the case that Nunes is spending too much time in Washington and not paying sufficient attention to needs at home.

“He’s not home, he doesn’t do town halls, and no one ever sees him,” she said.

David Marquette, 53, a steady Democratic voter, said that Nunes is “obsessed with defending Trump against the Mueller investigation.”

“He doesn’t seem to be focused on the issues here,” he said.

In a prickly exchange with The Fresno Bee, Nunes assailed a reporter for asking whether he would be holding any town halls or public forums in the near future. “Your paper is a joke to even bring these issues up, or raise these issues,” Nunes said.

To say that Nunes is considered the safe bet to win the seat is an understatement; he beat his Democratic opponent in 2016 with nearly 70 percent of the vote, and had $5 million in his war chest as of mid May, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission. He has raised more than $1.7 million since Jan. 1, bringing his total receipts far beyond what he has raised in previous elections, though just about half of those donations from within the state.

But California’s rural heartland is not a monolith. While the region tends to vote conservatively, there is a significant Latino community, which makes up nearly 50 percent of the population in many parts of the district, or more than 80 percent in small towns like Farmersville.

Driving through the district, there are many signs for Nunes' main opponent, Andrew Janz, a Fresno County prosecutor and a Democrat. He has shown fundraising potential already; he has raised $1.8 million to challenge Nunes and had $600,000 left on hand as of mid-May.

Any number of variables, however, could shift between now and the general election in November. The calculations of agricultural groups and trade organizations could change if Trump pursues trade policies internationally that could harm farming exports in California. The very nations with which the United States has seen tensions under Trump’s leadership — South Korea, China, Japan and Mexico — are among the largest export markets for Californian products.

And there are points of tension between Trump’s hard-line agenda and more moderate positions taken by some California Republicans. Immigration is particularly important in a farm economy, and mass deportation is not a popular solution in these rural areas. Blattler said that, pragmatically, farmers depend immensely on foreign labor because “there are not enough legal citizens living here today that want those jobs.” She said she would like to see an agricultural guest worker program and a solution to the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States that does not require a so-called “touchback,” which would mandate that farmworkers return to their country of origin, and would disrupt farm labor and existing relationships.

“A lot of our agricultural employers have sometimes multiple generations of employees who have never been able to get through the process, and they’re working on our farm and our ranches,” she said.

Concerns over Trump’s agenda appear easier to exploit in the neighboring 21st District, where Valadao faces a steeper battle to hold onto his seat in November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed him as a top target in their “red to blue” program.

Valadao has won landslide victories in the district since his election in 2012, despite voters there repeatedly supporting Democrats in national and statewide elections. Clinton won the district in 2016 by nearly 16 percentage points, but Valadao beat his opponent by 13 points. Notably, Valadao has taken a much softer approach on immigration than many of his Republican colleagues, and has even broken with his party to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

But with just one other candidate in the race, Valadao’s fight will come in November, as he and his opponent are automatically on the general election ballot. Few voters in downtown Hanford, the Kings County seat, seemed aware there was a primary election happening in just a matter of weeks.

Kelly Mahoney, who lives near Hanford, said that she tries not to follow politics too closely because it is so toxic, and she did not discuss her thoughts on Trump. She lamented, however, that politicians in the rest of the state do not fully understand what rural life is like.

“I don’t think they get us and I don’t think they consider us very much. They’re always worried about everyone else,” she said.