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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Democratic challenger John Hernandez of Fresno participated in a recent forum at Beale Memorial Library for candidates running for the 21st Congressional District. The forum also included Amanda Renteria, a Democrat from Sanger, and incumbent Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Democrat Amanda Renteria answers a question as part of a forum Feb. 20 at the Beale Memorial Library for candidates running for the 21st Congressional District. The forum also included Democrat John Hernandez and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who currently holds the seat.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, participated in a forum at Beale Memorial Library on Feb. 20 for candidates running for his 21st Congressional District seat. The forum also included Democratic challengers John Hernandez of Fresno and Amanda Renteria of Sanger.

When political insiders list the few California congressional districts that are competitive, they always mention the one that for decades has covered the central San Joaquin Valley's west side.

It's no different this year.

The 21st Congressional District -- which covers all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties -- has a near majority of registered voters who are Hispanic, a reliable Democratic Party voter base, and has a Democratic voter registration edge of more than 14 percentage points.

But it's represented by a Republican. Hanford dairy owner David Valadao has twice overcome the registration disparity to win election -- once in a state Assembly seat with similar district lines, and two years ago for the 21st Congressional District seat.

Thus, the prognosticators say, this year's election is a "toss up" that tilts toward Valadao.

The current battle is even higher profile because Sanger Democrat Amanda Renteria, a valley native, has returned from Washington, D.C., to challenge Valadao.

Fueled largely by out-of-state donors, she has proven herself a viable challenger by raising more than $600,000 to date, and she is clearly the choice of influential Democrats and Democratic donor groups.

Before a November showdown between incumbent Valadao and challenger Renteria is ordained, however, there is the June primary election, in which only the top two finishers will move on.

For the third person in the race, John Hernandez, this must feel like dejà vu.

The Fresno Democrat concedes nothing to either Valadao or Renteria, even though his campaign is in debt having only raised $6,894, according to campaign finance reports filed for the first three months of 2014, and having spent $9,202.

Two years ago, he was in a similar position when he ran for the same seat against Valadao. On a shoestring budget, he finished second in the top-two primary before going on to lose to Valadao in November.

In doing so, he ousted Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, who like Renteria was favored by influential Democratic groups.

"I'm a better candidate because I'm more in tune with the grass roots and what's going on in this valley," Hernandez said.

But Renteria is not Xiong.

She got into the race much earlier, has raised much more money, lives in the district and is Hispanic -- like a majority of the district's population. She also said she hasn't yet started a mass communication effort like television commercials or campaign direct mail.

"People are going to know our name and we're going to be out there," she said.

But Valadao says he has earned a second term by his work for the district and the valley -- work that has crossed party lines and has focused on local needs.

"The most important thing is you elect one of your own to represent you," he said.

In many ways, stances on a number of the issues are not clear cut.

For instance, all three candidates want more water infrastructure -- such as dams. And Valadao and Hernandez say that hands down, water is the most important issue in the district, while Renteria rates it equally important with jobs, immigration reform and education.

All three also support immigration reform that includes a way for citizens currently in the country illegally to earn citizenship.

Valadao and Renteria also tout their bipartisanship.

In his freshman term, Valadao said he reached out to both of California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. And while he said Boxer was not as friendly, he has met several times with Feinstein in the search for a solution to the valley's water crisis.

Renteria, by contrast, points to her time building bipartisan coalitions for the new farm bill while she was Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow's chief of staff.

The bill, which finally was passed this year, had its beginnings two years ago in the Senate, where Stabenow was the Agriculture Committee chairwoman.

"That's the type of representative I would be -- working across the aisle to get things done," Renteria said.

Valadao sits on the House Appropriations Committee, a committee that is critical to the valley, he said.

It has allowed him to make sure the Lemoore Naval Air Station gets needed infrastructure investments so it can stay competitive in a rapidly changing defense world, and weighed in on the Farm Bill and other critical valley needs as part of the committee's Agriculture Subcommittee.

Hernandez concedes that Valadao and Renteria both have Washington pedigrees they can use in their campaigns, but he sees it as an advantage for him.

"I've spent my entire professional career in the valley," he said. "People don't like D.C. D.C. is the problem."

Befitting a race that is considered competitive -- and one where the candidates share similar opinions on some key issues -- both Renteria and Valadao have picked at each other on certain issues in an effort to give voters a choice.

For instance, Valadao points out that most of Renteria's campaign contributions are from outside the valley and come from connections she made while working in the nation's capital. He also says he is the only one who grew up living in the west-side district.

"I'm not here running because Washington wants me to run and sent me out from Washington," Valadao said, referring to Renteria.

"There are 700,000 people in this district and the best that they can do is send someone from Washington and say they are from the valley?"

Renteria, for her part, says that while Valadao may say he is supportive of immigration reform by signing on as a co-sponsor of an immigration bill introduced by House Democrats, his voting record doesn't prove it.

He voted against the California Dream Act, she says, which paved the way for more undocumented immigrant students to enter the state's universities and community colleges by allowing them to apply for and receive state grants, university scholarships and fee waivers.

She also says he won't sign a petition currently being pushed by House Democrats that would force an immigration reform bill vote.

"I'm the daughter of migrant farmworkers who have really seen people move up that economic ladder and know how important it is," Renteria said.

While Renteria and Valadao go at each other, Hernandez has largely been left out of their debate.

That's no problem, he said. He is fine working the campaign trail to win votes.

It also means that he sometimes brings issues into the campaign that don't appear on the radar of the other two.

One example is fracking, a controversial oil-extraction process being planned for west-side oil shale reserves.

"It will destroy our agricultural base, and plus, we'll get earthquakes," he said. "My opponents want to frack out the whole west side. There are better ways for us to meet our energy needs."

There is one area, however, where voters can see a clear-cut difference and where party affiliations fit the respective sides of a controversial issue.

On the Affordable Care Act, Valadao isn't supportive and Renteria and Hernandez are, though Renteria notes the law "certainly isn't perfect."

Don't look for the same clarity with the state's controversial high-speed rail project.

Valadao hates it, saying it is an expensive proposal that would plow under prime agricultural land.

Hernandez loves it, saying it would be a massive job-creation project.

Renteria, however, "believes in the long-term vision and goals of high-speed rail, but she has some serious concerns about how much the project costs and how over budget it is already," spokeswoman Emily Nowlin said.