A Challenging House Race In California's Heartland

Freshman California Rep. Jeff Denham, a self-described Valley farmer and Republican businessman, is in a battle against challenger Jose Hernandez, former NASA astronaut and engineer-businessman in a realigned district in the San Joaquin Valley. It's a tight race, with lots of money being poured into both candidates from their respective parties.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Out here in California, meanwhile, some House races are drawing national attention. Among them, the battle for the 10th Congressional District in the state's agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley.

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, the incumbent is facing a growing challenge from a political newcomer with an intriguing background.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: If you want to go into politics, you need to get noticed. And one of the things that gets you noticed is a compelling personal story.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

JOSE HERNANDEZ: I was born right here in the Valley. When I was nine, my father told me, with hard work and a plan, anything was possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Booster, ignition and lift of Discovery...

BATES: Democrat Jose Hernandez is a perfect example. Born in California to migrant farm worker parents, he picked produce alongside them after school and on weekends. He changed schools a lot, and wasn't fully fluent in English until he was 12. But he liked math and science, eventually got two degrees in engineering and was chosen to be on the Space Shuttle Discovery.

His big concerns, he says, are jobs and education; which is how educator Mick Founts introduced Hernandez when he hosted a meetup so his neighbors could see the candidate up close.

MICK FOUNTS: He went to our schools. And when he moved on as an astronaut, he came back to our school. And I think that says a lot.

BATES: Hernandez readily admits he's not an experienced politician. But he told his audience, he's a quick learner.

HERNANDEZ: It isn't rocket science. I think I can figure it out. And if it was, I got you covered so don't worry about it.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: The Republican incumbent is freshman Congressman Jeff Denham. He didn't respond to several requests for interviews, but his campaign ads emphasize Denham's years in the state senate and his understanding of his district's wants and needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DENHAM: As an almond grower here in the valley, I have great respect for the land and the people that make their living growing the crops and raising the livestock that feed our nation.

BATES: Other ads focus on service to vets and a promise to rein in government spending, which Denham says is out of control. He's often voted in sync with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

The 10th District was created when the state redrew its district lines last year, and the Denham-Hernandez race hasn't gone unnoticed. Nathan Monroe is a professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, and he's not surprised at the heat the race in the 10th is generating.

NATHAN MONROE: In a time when there's such strong partisan differences, I think that any race where there is a real competitive fight between the Republican and Democratic candidate is going to draw national attention.

BATES: This fight is drawing a lot of outside money. Both parties have sunk hundreds of thousands into supporting their candidates. The Chamber of Commerce and several Republican political action committees have funded ads for Jeff Denham's campaign, like this one, that scoffs at Hernandez's support for a controversial high-speed rail system.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A one hundred billion dollar train. California doesn't need it and certainly can't afford it.

BATES: The Democrats have spent money on star power appearances, as well as ads. Bill Clinton recently flew into the area to stump for local candidates, including the 10th District challenger.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: And then you have Jose Hernandez.

(APPLAUSE)

BATES: The former president mangled Hernandez's name a little, but spent a lot of time outlining his resume for the enthusiastic crowd, emphasizing Hernandez's work in technology and science.

Denham started out the clear leader, according to political analysts, but now the race has narrowed to a toss-up. One factor is the new district's demographics, which show eligible Latino voters on the rise.

Mark Hugo Lopez is associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, which does nonpartisan research. Lopez says Latino voters have increased, in the state and overall, but higher Latino numbers don't automatically translate into more elected Latino officials. He says some recent Latino victories have come from a diverse supporter base.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: If you take a look, for example, at 2010, there were some Latinos that were elected in places that don't necessarily have a large number of Latino eligible voters.

BATES: And it's factors like new voters and outside money that will likely determine who will represent the 10th District in Washington.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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