Do the Democrats have a John Hernandez problem?
That's the question posited by a recent Roll Call article about Hernandez, one of the two Democratic candidates for the 21st Congressional District seat held by David Valadao, R-Hanford.
In a nutshell, the Hernandez campaign is a mess. But there is a chance he will be the guy the Democrats are stuck with -- again -- in the closely watched race.
Two years ago, Hernandez narrowly beat the Democratic Party's hand-picked candidate in the primary, only to get squashed by Valadao in the general election despite a strong Democratic voter registration advantage.
Early polling funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee this year shows Hernandez, once again, running ahead of the Democratic Party's candidate, Amanda Renteria, but far behind Valadao four months before the June primary.
Hernandez's biggest cheering section, therefore, could be the Republican Party.
Hernandez, 44, is the former CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and a jovial personality with a background in the insurance industry.
He is looking for a rematch against Valadao, who is seeking a second term, in this year's November general election.
But Renteria, not Hernandez, has been endorsed by the Democratic Party. Only the two candidates with the most votes in June will make it onto the November ballot.
Hernandez has struggled to comply with basic campaign finance laws, drawing repeated threats over the past 12 months with civil and criminal penalties by the Federal Election Commission for multiple violations.
Since the beginning of 2012, the FEC has issued 13 corrective letters to the campaign, demanding omitted information and highlighting information that appeared incorrect.
Hernandez's campaign treasurer, his wife, Karen Hernandez, was asked to amend campaign finance reports multiple times. Only one amendment was ever submitted.
Then the Hernandez campaign stopped filing campaign finance updates altogether.
Four reports were due in 2013 -- one for every financial quarter of the year. Every quarter, the FEC reminded Hernandez's campaign to file a report.
He never filed the reports.
The last report Karen Hernandez filed, in June 2013, was months late and contained information only through the end of 2012.
That report showed Hernandez had $14,364 in the bank and $40,500 in debt after suffering a brutal loss to Valadao in the 2012 general election.
Contacted Wednesday, Hernandez said he's dealing with the situation.
"We accept full responsibility and are fixing the issue and moving on," he said. "We made a mistake and it won't happen again. I'm making some internal changes for a long-term fix. We have a campaign to run -- and win."
The trouble for the Democratic Party is that Hernandez doesn't have a habit of beating Republicans.
In 2012, Hernandez's congressional campaign delivered disaster for Democrats.
First, Hernandez edged the chosen Democratic Party candidate, Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong, beating him in the primary by 585 votes
His bumbling, part-time campaign against Valadao had some awkward moments. In a formal candidates' interview with The Californian's editorial board last summer, he loudly demanded to know the identity of one particular woman in attendance, and what she was doing there. It was the newspaper's longtime publisher, Ginger Moorhouse. Minutes later he mistook another person at the meeting -- which was preserved on video -- for a Valadao representative, interrupting his attempt to ask a question. It was the newspaper's CEO, Richard Beene. Moorhouse and Beene are members of the editorial board.
Despite a 14.7 percent Democratic voter registration advantage, Hernandez lost to Valadao by 15.6 percentage points. That's a massive 30-point swing between registration and outcome.
This year isn't looking any better.
Polling earlier this month by the RNCC showed Valadao with 45 percent of the vote, far ahead of second-place finisher Hernandez, who had 25 percent.
The survey, by Harper Polling, showed Hernandez ahead of Renteria, a former U.S. Senate staffer from Sanger who has tons of political experience and has raised $337,992 in the past few months, three times what Hernandez raised for his entire 2012 race.
The bilingual poll of 517 likely voters gave Renteria 13 percent of the vote.
But Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran Republican campaign architect and publisher of the respected California Target Book, said the polls are just a first-blush look at the race.
"Early polling is more indicative of a candidate's name ID, rather than any indication of how voters will ultimately cast their vote," Hoffenblum wrote in an email. "Most everyone knows a Hernandez, a common Latino name. Very few know the name Renteria. But that will change with money."
Renteria's campaign declined to comment for this story. When The Californian reported on the Harper Polling poll, her spokeswoman said: "We're running a strong campaign against two men who've been on the ballot before, and we're very confident about our prospects."
Valadao's campaign issued a statement from the congressman touting his work in office.
"It is an honor and privilege to represent the 21st Congressional district," it read. "I look forward to earning the support of every voter in my district, regardless of their political party."
Valadao Chief of Staff Tal Eslick later supplemented that statement, chiming in with this:
"From supporting a high-speed rail project that will destroy countless homes and businesses to opposing hydraulic fracturing technology that could lead to thousands of new jobs, our opponents seem completely out of touch with the Central Valley. It is not surprising that both lack support," he said.
While Hernandez has touted his support for high-speed rail and opposition to fracking, Renteria has presented a more nuanced approach, saying she believes in the idea of high-speed rail but opposes its current form and that fracking is needed but must be carefully regulated.
The Roll Call article made much of another, smaller sign of Hernandez's campaign lapses.
It said he bounced a $42 check to the Democratic Women of Kern for a fundraiser the group held in August.
Catherine Romley, president of the Democratic Women of Kern, confirmed Wednesday that Hernandez bounced the check. The organization sent him a letter asking for the money, she said. There was no response.
Six months ago, Romley said, the group's treasurer tracked Hernandez down in person and asked for the money again. He promised to pay up, Romley said, but never did.
She said her group has not endorsed a candidate in the 21st District this year because "We have more than one Democratic candidate running."
Hernandez, on Wednesday, blamed his 2012 loss on a last-minute burst of financial support to Valadao from Republican Karl Rove and other national fundraising organizations. He said his campaign's polling put him neck-and-neck with Valadao before that money hit the campaign.
"We were very close," he said.
So what will be different this time?
"I wasn't running full-time," Hernandez said of the 2012 race. "I'm running full-time."
He said he also plans to raise the money needed to make the top two in June and then win the general.
Hoffenblum isn't so sure Hernandez beats Renteria.
"In 2012, Hernandez, running against an Asian American named Blong Xiong, who did not reside in the district, defeated him by only 585 votes," Hoffenblum wrote. "Renteria, unless she runs a terrible campaign, should be able to easily outpoll an opponent with no money and whose campaign is not in compliance with federal election laws."
If he does make it to the general election, Hernandez acknowledged he'll need money to win, but he said he expects that the Democratic Party leadership backing Renteria now would come around and contribute.
If the party money doesn't come -- it didn't in 2012 -- Hernandez said he'll do it on his own.
"We will raise the necessary funds to win in November," he said.
But can he really raise money? Hernandez has yet to file the required campaign finance reports that would help answer that question.