Valadao, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, has succeeded in part because he’s sensitive to the composition of his district, and he’s tried to walk a difficult line on immigration.
On his Spanish-language website, he calls himself as an “hijo de inmigrantes,” a son of immigrants.
Valadao’s website also says he supports a path to legal status for undocumented people: “This will allow millions of immigrants to come out of the shadows…and raise their families without the constant fear of deportation.” But none of Valadao’s positions have gone anywhere under GOP leadership.
When pressed on immigration, Valadao has pointed out that he signed a petition this year designed to force GOP House leaders to allow lawmakers to vote on a series of complex immigration proposals, among them a path to legal status for Dreamers, undocumented people brought to the United States as children.
The petition failed to lead to any reforms passing.
In Delano, voters seemed either unaware of the byzantine petition process or dismissed it as window dressing to aid GOP legislators looking for Latino votes.
TJ Cox, Valadao’s Democratic rival, told Valadao during a recent debate: “The fact is your party has control of every branch of government … and you can’t pass … an immigration bill.”
Cox, 55, is a Fresno engineer and businessman who’s developed dams — he can talk water — and who’s also founded two nut-processing businesses and a series of health centers in lower-income areas. He’s part Chinese and Filipino, which he’s highlighted in this multicultural region.
But Valadao has attacked Cox for living a few miles outside the 21st district — which is allowed — and for what Cox says was an “honest mistake” in claiming his Fresno home and an East Coast home as his primary address while his wife was studying in Maryland.
The influential Cook Political Report predicts a win for Valadao. It’s moved the 21st district race to “likely Republican,” rather than the more equivocal “lean” or “toss up” designations given to some of California’s other contested districts.
Cox’s campaign, though, sees hope in fresh numbers pollsters might not be capturing.
Since Trump took office in January 2017, campaign workers point out, more than 30,000 additional people have registered to vote in the 21st district, more than 20,000 of them Latinos.
“Latinos know there’s some guy there in the administration that has no respect for them,” Cox told the Center for Public Integrity after his wife, Kathleen Murphy, a pediatric intensive care physician, passed her cell phone over for a chat. On a recent weekend, she was in a Delano park with supporters who fanned out through town as part of a Democratic “blue wave” door-to-door strategy to try to coax voters to come out.
Joining Murphy was Cruz, the Delano hairdresser, who said that rather than just casting a ballot this year, she felt compelled to hold home meetings and to canvass along with other bilingual volunteers. She’s hoping Republican hostility to the Affordable Care Act — and Valadao’s votes to oppose and then repeal it — will also animate voters to choose Cox.
But, she conceded, many people aren’t aware of Valadao’s votes and she’s left explaining them.
“We must fight back,” she said.
Veronica Lopez, 36, a medical technician, is just the type of voter Cruz wants to reach.
In an interview at Starbucks, where she was scrolling through her phone, Lopez said that she had voted for Hillary Clinton. She has health insurance through her job. What’s weighing on her mind these days is college affordability, which has stymied her son’s plans for a four-year college.
She does care about immigration to the extent that she doesn’t want to see families “torn apart.”
“I don’t like people deported for no good reason,” she said. Farms have been losing workers because of ICE enforcement and they need workers, she added.