The moderate Central Valley dairy farmer already faces a Democratic challenger for 2022
To understand why David Valadao became the only Republican in California — and one of 10 in the House of Representatives — to vote in favor of impeaching President Trump this week, look no further than the shade of the dairy farmer’s sprawling Central Valley district: It’s gone purple.
Nestled among the deep red Republican strongholds represented by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and ardent Trump supporter Devin Nunes is Valadao’s district, which has swung from Republican to Democrat and back to Republican again in the last three elections. That also might explain Valadao’s pivot from not endorsing Trump in 2016 to backing the president’s re-election bid in November to his eyebrow-raising vote Wednesday to impeach Trump for inciting the violent mob that stormed the Capitol complex last week.
“There was definitely a political calculation.” said Nicole Parra, a Central Valley Democrat who has already announced her candidacy to take on Valadao in 2022. “I bet they said, ‘Parra’s coming.’”
Valadao’s vote raised the ire of Republicans in Fresno County but it wasn’t generating much public debate in Hanford, including at the Sanchez Feed and Seed supply store, where a member of the Sanchez family told this news organization that while workers have their own opinions, they won’t be sharing them out of respect for customers with different views. In a district where political views are mixed and arguments heated, few people want to risk alienating someone they might rely on in the future.
Central Valley political observers say the congressman most certainly had the blessing of McCarthy, who is well aware of the balancing act Republicans must play to keep the District 21 seat, which covers farming country in Kings County and parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. The moderate GOPer, political analysts say, was doing his best not to alienate voters in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional districts.
“Kevin needs Valadao to be safe,” said Mark Martinez, a political science professor at Cal State Bakersfield. “He’s covering his flank.”
Even as Valadao, who contracted COVID-19 in January and missed his swearing-in ceremony, accused Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, of creating a “rushed political stunt” out of what should be a “thorough investigation,” he said his conscience demanded he vote in favor of impeachment.
Trump’s “inciting rhetoric was un-American, abhorrent, and absolutely an impeachable offense,” the congressman said on Twitter. “It’s time to put country over politics.”
Martinez thinks the impeachment vote, paired with the stunt comment, is Valadao’s latest attempt to appeal to liberals and moderates without turning off too many conservatives, who aren’t likely to ditch him anyway, because he generally votes their way.
It’s “politically shrewd,” he said.
Valadao’s office did not respond to an interview request or answer its phone to say how many constituents were calling in to slam the congressman — or slap him on the back — for his vote..
Valadao, 43, was born and raised in Hanford, a cluster of dairy and cattle farms about 30 miles south of Fresno, by parents who immigrated in the late ’60s from Portugal. A farmer by trade, Valadao served in the California State Assembly from 2010-12 before winning a seat in Congress. He represented the 21st congressional district from 2013 to 2019. That year, he ceded the seat to Democrat TJ Cox after losing by a razor-thin margin. In November 2020, he won re-election, successfully ousting Cox after just one term and narrowly reclaiming the seat by only about 1,500 votes.
Known for being centrist on issues like immigration, Valadao represents a largely Latinx district that trends Democratic in presidential elections — it went for Joe Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but retains a deep conservative streak. Valadao has tried to straddle the fine line between appealing to and alienating Trump supporters
And while Valadao is already taking heat from conservatives, the impeachment vote is an attempt to hold onto voters who might otherwise flow to Bakersfield native Parra, a former state Assembly member with a UC Berkeley degree and name recognition whose campaign to oust Valadao is likely to be competitive.
“There are lots of liberals and Democrats surprised by this,” Martinez said, adding that Valadao knows “he’s got his work cut out for him already,” and that Parra is likely even to pull some Republican voters.
Parra, 50, said that as someone who has lived across the district and spent years working for Cal Dooley, who represented the area in the 1990s and early 2000s, she’s deeply familiar with what voters want and capable of building the infrastructure Democrats have need to win back the seat.
“This is a Democratic district,” Parra said. “I know how to win.”