The bitter fight for California's 21st Congressional District seat only got more so Tuesday as the two candidates — incumbent Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Selma, and challenger David Valadao, R-Hanford — clashed over questions of honesty and how closely their opponent obeys his own party's leadership.
In a televised debate in downtown Bakersfield, both men repeatedly accused the other of lying to win the upper hand and kowtowing to political interests instead of doing the right thing for local constituents.
The race is seen as one of the most pivotal in the battle for control of Congress. In a majority Hispanic district stretching from northern Fresno County to Lamont, it pits Valadao, 43, a dairyman and former three-term congressman, against engineer-businessman Cox, 57, who defeated the Republican in 2018 by a margin of fewer than 900 votes.
Valadao came back strong in the March primary, beating Cox 53.1 percent to 36.1 percent in a four-candidate field. They are set to face off again on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Both campaigns have aired relentlessly negative ads, with Valadao accusing Cox of failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes and Cox accusing his opponent of filing a bankruptcy that left others holding the bag. Those and other allegations resurfaced Tuesday, with each calling the other a liar on key points.
Party loyalties provided ample campaign fodder during Tuesday's debate hosted by KGET-17. Cox tried again and again to tie Valadao to President Donald Trump and the administration's actions he deemed hostile to immigrants. Likewise, Valadao attempted to portray Cox as a Democrat loyal to Gov. Gavin Newsom instead of his Central Valley constituents.
There were some points of relative agreement, such as each candidate's support for allowing non-citizens brought to the United States as children to stay in the country. But distinctions were evident on other matters.
When pressed about the causes of climate change and what should be done about it, Cox was clear that he believes it is real and man-made.
"That's not a belief, that's science that has put that out," he said, adding climate change should be dealt with by transitioning quickly to renewable energy sources.
Valadao said he, too, believes in climate change but added that humans "play a role in it" rather than being entirely responsible. As for what to do about it, he said California and the federal government need to do a better job managing the forests that have been devastated by the recent wildfires many attribute to changing weather patterns.
The two opponents also took somewhat different stances on whether they would personally take any COVID-19 vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Valadao said he has never been a fan of vaccines but that he would trust and take one if it gets the FDA's OK.
Cox, however, said he would take such a vaccine only if it has been administered first to Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump's Coronavirus Task Force who occasionally is the subject of criticism by the president.
"This is not an administration that believes in science," Cox said.
Valadao responded by saying the problem with tackling COVID-19 is that it has become a partisan issue.
"We need people who are looking to build us together, bring us together," Valadao said.