One of the few things that Republican Rep. David Valadao and Democrat TJ Cox have in common is their desire to largely ignore the man in the White House on the campaign trail.
They disagree on almost everything else. But the two candidates vying to represent a large portion of California’s Central Valley in Congress are both trying to stop President Donald Trump’s persona from dominating their race, a manifestation of the belief that most voters are not as consumed with the President’s Twitter missives and day-to-day policy decisions as those in Washington.
Trump has proved to be an omnipresent force in people’s lives ever since he stepped into office in 2017. Democrats, eager to deliver the President a referendum by flipping the House blue in November, are working to figure out how to talk about the President’s policies without getting sucked into the day-to-day fights that dominate the talk on radio and television.
It’s a question that confused the most seasoned Republicans during the 2016 primary, when the businessman-turned-politician dispatched a cadre of top Republicans. And now a number of national Democratic organizations are urging candidates to steer clear of issues like the ongoing Russia investigation or questions about his relationship with Stormy Daniels, arguing that they already get discussed enough in public.
For Valadao, the calculation is a reflection of his district’s antipathy toward Trump and voters’ interest. While voters re-elected the congressman in 2016, they favored Democrat Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points over Trump, making the district key for Democratic hopes to take back the House two years after President Barack Obama left office. Though Trump-inspired signs dot the arid landscape throughout the district – “Make California Great Again,” a series of large posters reads – more are focused on local issues like water rights, and Valadao’s signage doesn’t even mention he is a Republican, a nod to the fact the district has 17% more registered Democrats.
“I treat this administration like I did the last administration. I talk about the issues,” Valadao said on Monday. “If I agree with the President on it, I will say that. If I disagree, I will say that.”
Though he said some activists are fired up by the President, he added: “At the end of the day, it’s what happens at home that gets them to vote and gets people interested.”
Cox agrees, to an extent.
Though some voters bring up the state of affairs in Washington and Trump by name while he knocks on doors here in Hanford, their questions are often more focused on local issues like supporting agriculture and the feeling that their tax dollars never return to the district.
“I never talk about Trump,” Cox said when asked if he will bring up the President in conversation. “What I talk about and when people talk to me out there in the streets and their homes, what they care about are the kitchen table issues.”
The strategy is backed up by other Democrats in the Valley. North of Cox, in California’s 10th Congressional District, both Michael Eggman and Josh Harder are trying to steer clear of being hyper-focused on the President. Harder told CNN he never talks about Trump with voters, instead focusing on local issues, and Eggman’s campaign said he had learned from his failed 2016 congressional bid that talking about Trump can get you close, but not over the line.
On the ground here in Hanford, though, that strategy is playing out but is far from cut and dried.
When Dave Jones, a 77-year-old former agriculture businessman, welcomed Cox into his home on Monday, he clearly had Trump on his mind.
“Every day he is a burden to me,” Jones said. “Every. Day.”
Turning to his wife, Jones lamented, “It weighs on us.”
Should Cox be able to beat Valadao in November (there is a primary in June but Cox and Valadao are the only candidates on the ballot), Jones is the kind of voter the businessman needs to woo.
Jones, an independent, voted for Valadao in 2016, feeling that he was a local guy who understood agriculture because of his ties to the dairy business. After 16 months under Trump, though, Jones is full of regret.
“In a moment of stupidity, I voted for Valadao last year and I have been regretting it ever since,” he said, sitting in the front room of his ranch-style home. “I think he is so swept up in keeping Donald Trump’s favor that he has forgotten what is happening here.”
During this exchange, Cox nods and smiles, but doesn’t directly opine on Trump. Instead, he discusses his pledge to not take corporate money and questions Valadao’s ties to dairy. Cox, the son of immigrants from China and the Philippines, routinely knocked Valadao in an interview with CNN, but the comments focused mostly on policy, not on the President’s personality.
“He is a foot soldier for Trump,” Cox said to CNN about Valadao in the interview. “He is a foot soldier for the party.”
And he takes on Republicans for a number of issues Trump has championed. He faults the Republican-backed tax bill, slams attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and is vocal about the President’s focus on curbing legal immigration and cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
The issue is deeply personal for communities in the San Joaquin Valley, where 71% of residents are Hispanic and immigration plays a sizable role in the availability of workers to harvest the ever-present almond, berry and citrus fields throughout the valley.
“The fact is, our problem with immigrants here in America, is that we don’t have enough of them, particularly here in the Central Valley,” Cox told CNN.
Valadao, unlike some Republicans who are steering away from immigration, has signaled he plans to take on the issue headfirst in 2018, hoping that his reputation as a proponent of overhauling the immigration system will lead him to victory again. Valadao recently signed on to an immigration discharge petition, a maneuver spearheaded by Republicans in Congress that would force their party to vote for a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects from deportation young people who were brought to the country illegally.
Though Cox questions Valadao’s motive on the discharge petition (“This is nothing more than a fourth-quarter Hail Mary to show he has done something on immigration,” he said), the congressman argues he is just doing what he has always done.
“I have been working on this issue for five years. So it is not a new topic” for him, Valadao said. “And I don’t believe we have had an opportunity like this before.”
Valadao also appears eager to go on offense against Cox, who has been roundly hit by Republicans for not living in the district he is seeking to represent and for planning to run in the 10th District before deciding at the last minutes to switch races.
“Obviously, it is not going to work in his favor,” Valadao said. “No one knows who he is.”
Cox shakes off the controversy, arguing that he lives mere miles from the border of the district in Fresno and has worked for years through the Central Valley NMTC Fund to help the 21st District by creating jobs and building health centers.
“People care about what you do for them,” Cox said. “And here is the thing Valadao is not going to be able to bring up: what he has done for the district, which has been an absolute zero.”