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ROBERT PRICE: Exactly 100 days out, Valadao is charting a course that keeps Trump at a safe distance

We’re exactly 100 days out from the November election, and though we won’t see the full-on biennial deluge of advertising for another six weeks or so, the pace of hyperbolic, down-ballot finger-pointing should start catching up with the presidential contest any day.

Last week, while President Donald Trump was warning us “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Biden was having a properly distanced reunion with his old boss, leaving us to wonder if they were getting the band back together. Next are the national party conventions, such as they may be, playing against a backdrop of the biggest crisis/hoax (shout your preference so I’ll know your party affiliation) since World War II/Milli Vanilli. Politics and pandemic management have evolved into the same story.

A hundred days.

“It doesn’t feel like it,” Republican David Valadao told me Saturday. The noise had distracted him, like it's distracted all of us. But the calendar doesn’t lie.

The Hanford farmer, who served three terms in Congress before losing narrowly to Democrat T.J. Cox of Fresno in the blue wave of 2018, is trying to win his seat back, but he is having a serious problem with poll numbers. Not his. Trump’s.

Gallup has the president's approval rating at 38 percent this week, which puts him slightly ahead of poison oak and just behind Nicolas Cage. Trump is the first president since Gallup started polling in 1935 never to have had his approval rating venture at some point into the 60s. Or even the 50s.

This matters because a president’s popularity rolls downhill whether the down-ballot candidates below want it or not. Members of Congress, especially, benefit when a president of the same party surges and they suffer when he suffers.

Which prompts the question: To what extent does Valadao hitch his wagon to the president’s? The answer is somewhere between “in the few areas where it might help” and “let’s not talk about it.”

“There are two sides to this coin,” Valadao said. “There are things that the president did that were beneficial for the Central Valley and (Cox) didn't step up to help. He stood with his party leadership in opposition. I think those are going to play a role in this as well. That's going to change (his strategic approach to) a little bit of defense instead of just offense.”

That’s as far as Valadao will go on Trump. “All politics is local,” he reminds us, and though that’s not completely true, it’s close.

If history is our guide, Valadao — mask or no mask — will keep his distance.

In 2016, he declined to endorse then-candidate Trump, who was running at between 38 percent and 41 percent approval against Democrat Hillary Clinton, saying he couldn't support a candidate whose divisive rhetoric “denigrates people based on their ethnicity, religion, or disabilities.”

Criticizing the presidential nominee of one’s own party might seem unwise — and Trump has made others pay for that slight — but the 21st District is 71 percent Hispanic and dominated by Democrats in terms of party registration, 43 percent to 27 percent.

Clinton won the district by 15.5 points over Trump, but Valadao defeated Democrat Emilio Huerta by a comfortable 13-point margin.

Valadao kept his distance from Trump again in 2018. He voted against funding for a border wall, ripped the administration on family separations, and supported the idea of tying border security legislation to a fix for “Dreamers.”

Cox won anyway — by 862 votes.

Cox managed it by motivating Latino voters, a traditionally low-turnout constituency, and painting Valadao as a Trump clone, even at one point airing a TV ad that had Valadao’s face morphing into Trump’s.

But those were some of the good days; Trump’s approval rating exactly two years ago, in late July, as Valadao’s general election campaign against Cox was taking shape, was 40 percent, with a 52 percent disapproval rating, according to Gallup. Today it’s 38 percent and 57 percent.

Valadao must decide how dramatically he must separate himself from Trump this time. Not if, but by how much.

Cox will of course attempt to join the two Republicans at the hip, focusing again on immigration and health care. Those issues were winners for California Democrats in 2018, when Democrats flipped seven California districts from Republicans.

The Democratic National Congressional Committee will also remind viewers that Valadao voted with Trump 98 percent of the time he was in Congress. And that’s true, although legislation opposed by a Republican president wouldn't realistically be considered on the House floor at all if Republicans also control the chamber, as was the case during the time Valadao and Trump overlapped.

Valadao broke with Trump twice, according to FiveThirtyEight and McClatchy’s Katie Irby: When Valadao supported sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea that Trump opposed; and the extension of government funding in December 2018 that would have included $5.7 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Republican National Congressional Committee will come after Cox in the coming months as well. Last year, as Valadao was announcing his intention to seek a rematch, the RNCC called Cox a "rabid socialist extremist" who has brought "radicalism" into the House. One can only imagine what they called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Cox has the fundraising advantage thus far. He's raised $3.2 million, including almost $940,000 in this election cycle’s most recent fiscal quarter. Valadao has raised $2.4 million in the same period, including just over $700,000 in the most recent fiscal quarter. But Federal Election Commission figures show Valadao has received more contributions of $200 or less — almost $448,500 to Cox’s $372,000. Valadao’s total includes $1.7 million from California; Cox’s includes $1.1 million from California.

At some point we’ll be hearing from these two, no matter how loud the noise elsewhere. The campaigns have reserved more than $1 million each for campaign advertising — peanuts in some contexts, but enough to get the attention of the nation’s No. 54 (Fresno) and No. 62 (Bakersfield) metro areas. Valadao won’t say how or when he plans to roll that out.

Meanwhile, the 23rd Congressional District race could have some drama for the first time since the present configuration was drawn. “Could” is the operative word.

Democrat Kim Mangone of Quartz Hill has the distinct disadvantage of facing an entrenched Republican opponent whose most effective campaign strategy has always been to ignore, as much as possible, his opponent’s very existence. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield will almost certainly be able to get away with that tactic again. His $8 million campaign war chest won’t hurt.

McCarthy won handily in 2018 against Democrat Tatiana Matta. And although his 64.4 percent share of the vote looked like a landslide, that outcome represented the closest race of his career. If Mangone can get even 40 percent of the vote, she will have made a not-entirely-futile statement about this president and his closest ally in Congress.

This bears noting, though: Mangone raised $360,000 in the second quarter — more money than every previous McCarthy challenger in the sum of their campaigns, combined. And almost 99 percent of Mangone’s $500,000 in total contributions has come from individual donations of under $200.

A hundred days. This should be interesting. In that regard, 2020 hasn’t let us down yet.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at robertprice@kget.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.