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In California’s House District 22, those who don’t vote may have just as much power as those who do

From left: David Valadao, Rudy Salas, Melissa Hurtado, Chris Mathys
Campaign websites.
From left: David Valadao, Rudy Salas, Melissa Hurtado, Chris Mathys

Follow live updates during the March 5th Primary from Central California

FRESNO, Calif. — Covering a large swath of the San Joaquin Valley – a red, rural, agricultural region of an otherwise densely populated blue state – House District 22 is the very definition of a swing district.

About 43% of voters here are registered as Democrats, compared to 26% as Republicans and 22% as No Party Preference, the state’s designation for independent voters. And yet, in 2022, voters elected a Republican – David Valadao – to represent them. Valadao had previously served four terms representing nearby District 21.

Before California’s Congressional district boundaries were redrawn in 2022, District 22 had long been represented by Trump-allied Republican Devin Nunes.

Under the new lines, which turned the district from red to purple, old contenders are again battling for a seat that has become one of the nation’s most closely watched Congressional races this year.

The Democrat and Republican who faced off here in the 2022 midterms are vying for the seat once again. But each runs the possibility of being out-maneuvered by relative newcomers. Analysts say the result, which could shape the makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives, could very well be decided by voters who stay home, rather than those who make it to the polls.

The previous fight

In 2022, winning 52% of the vote, Valadao edged out his Democratic competitor – former Assemblymember Rudy Salas – by only 3,100 votes.

Salas had served five terms in the state legislature before resigning in order to run for Congress.

And curiously, in the months leading up to the general election that year, the district’s voter preference reversed: during the primary, Valadao had actually lost to Salas by nearly 20 percentage points.

“In the primary, Salas looks like the guy to beat, and come November, the outcome is flipped,” said Ivy Cargile, an associate professor of political science at CSU Bakersfield.


“It’s because not enough people showed up,” Cargile said.

Voter turnout that year was low even for a midterm election. Only a fifth of voters in this district submitted ballots in the 2022 primary, and only a third in the general election. With numbers that low, there’s no guarantee that those few who submit ballots accurately represent their district.

“And so the percentage that did show up, they got their guy,” Cargile added.

But despite the district’s Democratic preference, Cargile suspects that Salas’s campaign still has work to do in order to break through with voters in the district.

“It is a flippable seat, there is a chance, but the ground game has to be strong,” said Cargile. “That's very resource intensive, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of people power, and I'm not sure…that the Salas campaign fully understood that.”

The stakes in House District 22

This year, Salas is back for a rematch.

So is Chris Mathys, a conservative Republican cattle rancher who scored a close third during the 2022 primary.

And what has made this year’s election even more unpredictable is a fourth candidate seeking to capture the seat: Democrat Melissa Hurtado.

Hurtado is a three-term State Senator who used to work alongside Salas in Sacramento. Political analysts have speculated that if Hurtado siphons enough votes away from Salas’s existing campaign, both Democrats could actually be locked out of the race – thus forcing a Democratic-leaning district to choose between two Republicans in November.

With such tight margins in the house, Democratic strategists fear this scenario. The outcome of this race could very well determine which party becomes the majority in Washington, D.C., if the House again sees a narrow party split.

As a result, California’s Democratic establishment has thrown all its weight behind Salas, even offering up key endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Democratic party and U.S. Senator Alex Padilla – and thereby turning a back on Hurtado, who is an active member of the state legislature.

Cargile says these high stakes mean voters in District 22 have more sway in this one race than others in nearby districts. If not enough voters show up, “this could be decided by the people who stay home,” she said.

One thing is for sure: if one of the two parties gets barred after Super Tuesday, it’s one less surprise come November.

“This is a highly influential race,” Cargile said, “which hopefully means then that…the campaigns are going to do their job and figure out a strong ground game in order to get people out, in order to get people excited, in order to get people hopeful.”

Corrected: March 5, 2024 at 3:54 PM PST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Melissa Hurtado. She is a State Senator.
Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.