Republican Connie Conway is leading the field in early returns in the race to replace former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, but so far she is well below the majority she would need to win outright in this first round and avoid a June runoff.
Conway is the best-known of the six contenders who are vying to replace Nunes, a close ally of former President Donald Trump who announced late last year that he was leaving Congress to head the Trump Media & Technology Group. Nunes resigned in January and vacated his seat in the California congressional district that covers much of Fresno and Tulare counties.
Conway represented many of the region’s voters as a former Tulare County supervisor and former minority leader in the state Assembly. She had presented herself as a strong supporter of Trump who was best-suited to fill the remaining months of Nunes’ term because of her relationships with lawmakers throughout California and in Washington.
The vacancy created an unusual situation because the winner who fills Nunes’ seat is likely to only serve for a few months in Congress. The district, which covers portions of Fresno and Tulare counties, was broken into pieces by California’s non-partisan redistricting commission when they created the state’s new congressional maps. Under the new lines, much of Nunes’ old district will become part of the new 21st District, anchored by Fresno, where veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Costa is the front-runner in what is considered a safe seat for his party.
In part because of the brevity of the assignment, the primary race to replace Nunes among four Republicans and two Democrats was congenial, focusing largely on local issues like drought and the struggle to get more water to farmers in the Central Valley.
The major divide among the candidates was between those who said they were only focused on the Nunes seat and those who were simultaneously seeking another congressional office for the term that begins in 2023.
Conway argued voters should support her because she would serve in a “caretaker” role and not use the office as a “stepping stone” to another congressional office, promising to focus on unfinished district work including helping constituents troubleshoot problems like passport delays and Social Security benefits.
Three of the candidates – Republicans Matt Stoll and Michael Maher and Democrat Eric Garcia – are also seeking to represent the new 21st District, where they will face Costa for a normal two-year term that begins in 2023.
Under California’s rules, if no candidate receives a majority of the votes (50% plus 1) in the special election, the top-two finishers, regardless of party, proceed to a June 7 runoff. That will be the same day that California holds its statewide primary election. A runoff could produce confusion, because the names of one or more of the special election candidates could appear twice on the June ballot if they’re competing for a second office.
Stoll, a retired Navy fighter pilot, had hoped to build name recognition in the special election to use it as “a springboard” for the contest in the 21st District as he seeks “to roll back every aspect of the progressive agenda and what Joe Biden stands for.”
Garcia, a Marine veteran, planned to focus on just one piece of legislation to aid the Valley’s struggling families during the remaining months of Nunes’ term – reinstating the enhanced monthly child tax credit that ended in 2021 after Democrats’ efforts to extend it collapsed. In his race in the 21st Congressional District, he is focused on the longstanding problems with air pollution and water contamination in the Central Valley – calling himself a voice for those who “have been left behind.”
Lourin Hubbard, who like Conway is not seeking another congressional office, has championed progressive policies that go well beyond even what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed as a presidential candidate.
Hubbard, a manager at the state water resources control board, told CNN he favors eliminating all federal taxes on overtime to help lower-income and middle-income families. He supports canceling student loan debt, favors tuition-free community college, and would also like to see “debt-free public college” where the state and federal government defray the costs of four-year public universities. He also wants the federal government to guarantee every person in America a union job that pays at least $20 an hour.
Republican technology executive Elizabeth Heng presented herself as the vanguard of a new generation of GOP leaders who would seek to be a “leading voice” in “getting our immigration policy resolved once and for all” as the daughter of refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge.
Maher, a Navy veteran and former FBI agent, had said he hoped to foster a less polarizing conversation around immigration. He said he would work on legislation to “create a clear pathway for people to come in and work and be able to return home.” Though he had not committed to a specific plan, Maher said he was working with the Latino community in the Central Valley as well as business owners and farmers to determine the best solution based on the region’s labor needs.
In the most recent breakdown of party registration available from the state, nearly 39% of voters in the current 22nd District were registered as Republicans, 34% as Democrats and 20% as “no party preference.”
Heng led the field in fundraising, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, after raising $214,900, followed by Garcia with $205,715.
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