In Calif. Election, A Fight For Second Place

fromKQED

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who represents California's 10th Congressional District, faces two main challengers in next week's primary: former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat, and independent Chad Condit, son of former Congressman Gary Condit. Under California's new "jungle primary" system, the top two finishers will go on to the general election in the fall.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

This Tuesday, a congressional race in California's rural Central Valley will come down to a fight for second place. As Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports now, the race pits a farm worker-turned-astronaut against the son of a disgraced congressman.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: New rules are turning California's primary system upside down. It used to be about winning your party's nomination. Now, it's about being one of the top two vote-getters. That could mean two Democrats, two Republicans, even an independent versus a Republican on the November ballot. That's what might happen in California's 10th Congressional District.

NATHAN MONROE: I think this could be one of the most interesting congressional primaries in the history of the region.

KHOKHA: Professor Nathan Monroe teaches political science at the University of California, Merced, and he's fascinated by the candidates in this race. There's Jose Hernandez, a migrant farm worker who picked tomatoes in the fields as a child and ended up soaring into outer space as an astronaut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE FLIGHT)

KHOKHA: Kids and parents at a local school gasp with delight as they watch a video of Hernandez suspended in zero gravity, eating floating tortillas covered with peanut butter and jelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS LAUGHING)

KHOKHA: Hernandez tells them he made it to space by following advice from his father, a migrant farm worker from Mexico.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: He said, the same effort you put in picking cucumbers out in the fields, that same work ethic, that effort, you put it in your books and getting good grades, and guess what, you're going to be able to reach your dream.

KHOKHA: Today, families here face double-digit unemployment and some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

HERNANDEZ: I was talking to those parents, and they were losing faith that their kids can achieve that American dream, and that scared me.

KHOKHA: You don't see a lot of campaign signs for Hernandez driving around the district. Giant billboards for Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, though, are everywhere. Denham himself is not. He's keeping a low profile, not making many campaign appearances. He didn't respond to repeated requests for interviews. The congressman seems confident he'll win one of the top two slots in the primary.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DENHAM: Let's get rid of the waste in government.

KHOKHA: That's Denham addressing Congress last month. His fiscally conservative message resonates with rural voters here. If Jose Hernandez doesn't make it past the primary, Denham will face someone who isn't from a major party, but who's got something big going for him - name recognition.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

CHAD CONDIT: Hi there.

DARREN SMITH: Hi.

CONDIT: Chad Condit, running for Congress here in Stanislaus County.

SMITH: I know who you are.

CONDIT: Well, I appreciate your consideration on June 5th.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. Your dad helped me out one time when it was really important, so I appreciate it.

KHOKHA: Chad Condit gets that a lot. He's the son of former Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, whose national image was tarnished after evidence emerged he was having an affair with Washington intern Chandra Levy. She was later found murdered in a park, killed by a stranger.

Here in his home district, the elder Condit is still respected for his loyalty to his constituents, even if it meant sometimes bucking his party. And his son, now running as an independent, is playing up his father's legacy.

CONDIT: But I'm truly the underdog candidate. And people, they think I'm pretty gutsy for running after what my family went through.

KHOKHA: After Gary Condit left Congress, the family moved to Arizona, where they bought Baskin Robbins ice cream franchises that ran into financial and legal trouble. Now the whole family's back here, walking precincts and passing out T-shirts.

It's a shoestring campaign. Shoestring or not, if he manages to beat out Democrat Hernandez in June, Condit could have a real shot in November, thanks to California's new primary system. As an independent, he'd only have to face one major party candidate, not two. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Modesto.

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