Emilio Huerta believes that during his 2016 race for the 21st Congressional District, he built a foundation that will allow him to win the seat in 2018.
So on Tuesday he committed to run a second time against Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.
But Valadao has won the seat three times now, brushing off even the best attempts by Democratic candidates to use the 21st District’s 16-point Democratic voter registration advantage to scuttle him.
The district’s rural, Latino majority picked Hillary Clinton as their president with 55 percent of the vote in 2016.
But Valadao distanced himself from Trump, called for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for some immigrants in the country illegally, and used Huerta’s connection to the United Farm Workers union and his mother, union co-founder Dolores Huerta, to batter him repeatedly in high-dollar media campaigns.
And Huerta claimed only 43 percent of the vote.
On Wednesday, Valadao Communications Director Anna Vetter issued a statement about Huerta’s candidacy that characteristically sidesteps the issue of politics in favor of a workman-like promise to roll up his shirt-sleeves in Washington.
"Instead of focusing on politics, Congressman Valadao is going to keep doing what he was elected to do: represent his constituents," it said. "Rather than discuss potential opponents, he is working on securing a reliable water supply for the valley, reforming our nation’s broken immigration system, and ensuring Central Valley families have access to high quality health care."
Valadao himself was unavailable for comment.
On Wednesday Huerta said he will win on the issues.
“We’re still living in the poorest congressional district in the country,” he said.
Valadao has proven to be out of touch with the district's constituents, Huerta said, including doing "nothing to talk about how we improve the educational levels in the community. How do we affect poverty."
And Valadao’s vote for the American Health Care Act, the House’s attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, shows he cares nothing for the majority of low-income families in the 21st District, Huerta said.
Valadao’s vote could deny hundreds of thousands of locals health care coverage and eliminate the jobs of tens of thousands of people, he said.
And, Huerta said, Valadao won because he used lies in attack ads to damage Huerta’s character.
“Our loss was attributed to a campaign of lies that came out against us,” Huerta said.
But can Huerta beat Valadao in a midterm election when Democratic turnout trends are already weak in the 21st?
Cal State Bakersfield Political Science Professors Kent Price and Mark Martinez said Huerta has some advantages over his 2016 run. But they are skeptical that will be enough in 2018.
“When I think about this, I think about it in terms of what’s changed and what hasn’t changed,” Price said.
For Huerta to win, he has to change or capitalize on a change in the battlefield.
“The registration and the demography is the same,” Price said.
And, perhaps, Huerta will not have to face a damaging primary race as he did in 2016.
“He thinks he has an infrastructure that he can call back up again. He has a strong ground game,” Price said. “That’s probably better than having to have someone else to come in and try to rebuild it from a Democratic point of view.”
“You can make the case that the AHCA is a disaster,” Martinez said.
But will Valadao’s vote really hurt Huerta?
“His constituents aren’t moving. As a matter of fact they see this as Trump thumbing his nose at the establishment. They think he’s doing good. They aren’t buying what the Democrats in Washington are selling,” Martinez said.
Price said the vote will hurt Valadao.
But “that’s just one vote and you need more than one vote,” he said. “Nobody is going to be hurt by it because the Senate is going to have to clean it up. Can you really claim that he’s going to put thousands of people out of work and cost hundreds of thousands of people their health care?”
Martinez said Huerta needs to steer clear of national Democratic politics.
“I think the bigger question is if Emilio has learned a lesson about the weaknesses coming out of the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C. They didn’t help him at all,” Martinez said. Valadao’s team “attacked Emilio. They inundated the airwaves in both English and Spanish. And the guys in Washington had no response.”
One benefit Huerta may enjoy, Price said, is that all the attack ad material that damaged him in 2016 is now old news.
In the end, Huerta said, he believes he can build the political structure he will need and bring in the millions of dollars it will take to truly challenge Valadao.
He will have more time to run now. He will recruit a political team in Fresno County. He will get his message out there to the voters.
And, 17 months from now, the voters will have another chance to choose him over Valadao, he said.