Leading up to the November election, forecasters predicted that Republican incumbent David Valadao would win the 21st Congressional District. The District includes all of Kings County, and parts of Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties.
It wasn’t until last week, as vote counts were finalized, that the race was decided in favor of Democrat TJ Cox. “We kind of flagged it as a potential upset,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “That said, I ultimately was pretty surprised that Valadao ended up losing.”
Sabato’s Crystal Ball produces political analysis and forecast from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Its forecast for the district was, “Leans Republican,” meaning it might be a close race, but one likely to end in Republican candidate Valadao’s favor.
“He is someone who people on both sides seem to thinks was in decent shape,” says Kondik.
In the 21st District, the majority of voters are registered Democrats. Despite that, the District has voted for Republican David Valadao since 2012. He comes from a family of dairymen, speaks fluent Spanish, and has worked with Democrats on some issues like immigration.
But now, Kondik says that this has been a reckoning moment for the state’s Republican Party as it addresses voter demographics changing at a faster rate than the rest of the nation. “So, as bad as it is for California Republicans, it hypothetically could get even worse next time.”
He says that after 2012, some Republican leaders suggested toning down the immigration rhetoric, and making stronger appeals to non-white voters. “And then Donald Trump gets nominated doing almost exactly opposite and he ended up winning the presidency.”
Kondik says, the affiliation between Trump and congressional Republicans is part of what turned California voters away from the party. So now, California Republicans are wondering how to win voters back. Nick Gera, a professor of political science at West Hills College within the 21st District, agrees.
“I don't think this was a ‘no’ to Valadao, I think this was more of a ‘no’ to the president and the administration that Mr. Valadao has fallen victim to,” Gera says.
He says that the nationalization of politics has certainly come into play for these races. Gera also says the factors that used to most influence an election are changing.
“The valley is consistently proving that it doesn't take money to buy this race,” says Gera. “The Republicans, and especially Valadao, from the last report coming in from almost October, he had outraised TJ Cox by well over a million dollars.”
What matters instead, says Gera, has been the ground game.
That’s what made Claire Fitiousi confident that the 21st Congressional District might flip. She canvassed and phone banked for TJ Cox. And after the election, she paid close attention to the county clerk updates.
“I had so many people saying, ‘the election’s over, isn't it?’” says Fitiousi. “And I would say, ‘the election’s over, but there are still ballots that haven’t been counted.’”
Fitiousi works at a local printing shop in Hanford, and is chair of the Kings County Democratic Central Committee. She says when she had a meeting with David Valadao back in 2017 to talk about issues in the district she felt brushed off.
“That's when I just felt that I was going to do whatever I needed to to get a new congress-person,” Fitiousi says. “So it's been almost two years of effort, and, obviously well worth all the effort.”
There were plenty of young people canvassing too -- like Anna Armstrong, who isn’t old enough to vote but still went out and knocked on doors with a friend.
“We had a couple people, like, ‘you two look very young for canvassers,’” says Armstrong. “And we’re like, well, we are. We’re a high school sophomore and junior so it is a bit unusual.”
Armstrong, who is 16, canvassed in Fowler the weekend before the election. “We had to just kind of explain that these are policies that affect us, as well,” says Armstrong. “Politics shouldn't just be limited to adults because it affects everyone.”
With freshman orientation finished for new congressmen in D.C., we will soon find out how TJ Cox will legislate, and how his decisions will affect those in his district.