Donald Trump

Is Change in the Water? Candidates' Roots, Trump at Issue in Calif. Farm Country Race

"How do you balance the larger politics of the nation with the realities of California?"

In California's 10th Congressional District, a sprawling patchwork of farms and small cities east of San Francisco, a tight congressional race is coming down to the wire.

Democrat Josh Harder, a 31-year-old former venture capitalist, is running to represent his native district after making millions through Silicon Valley. He is challenging Republican Jeff Denham, a local farmer and Iraq War veteran who has spent most of his life in the district's Central Valley.

The two are vying for a district, made up of rural Stanislaus County and parts of San Joaquin County, that has voted for Denham to represent them since 2010, but went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 2 points in the 2016 presidential election.

"This race is representative of what we're seeing all over the country," said Melinda Jackson, a political science professor at San Jose State University. "Elections will hinge on voter turnout, specifically whether Democrats are motivated to push back against President Trump."

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report puts the race as a toss-up. A few public polls have shown Harder with a slight edge over Denham. The Democrat raised over $2.5 million more than his opponent and spent about $3 million more, according to federal election data from mid-October.

The race is asking tougher questions than just opinions on policy, said Thomas Reeves, a nonpartisan spokesman for the city of Modesto, the district's largest city. He said residents will have to decide whether to side with Denham's GOP, whose rhetoric on immigration, health care and the environment has become increasingly abrasive under Trump's leadership, or take a chance with Harder, who lived until recently out of the district.

"How do you balance the larger politics of the nation with the realities of California?" Reeves said.

This article, part 10 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience and organization, and an outspoken but polarizing president.

Who Knows the District?
The Denham campaign has tried to make the election about who really knows the district and its needs. Denham has attacked Harder for his ties to Silicon Valley, claiming that Harder is only interested in flipping the district for Democrats rather than helping the district itself.

"This is a local campaign," Denham told The Associated Press. "This is the fifth time they've moved somebody into this district to run against me."

Denham was not available for an interview with NBC in the last few days of the campaign, but Denham's campaign manager, Joshua Whitfield, said the race boils down to "who is local and who is not."

Less than 3 percent of Harder's campaign donations have come from inside the district, compared to about 18 percent of Denham's, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Harder countered that his family "settled in this district over 180 years ago, I was born here and graduated from the public school system here."

He pointed to Denham's voting record, which aligned with Trump's almost 98 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. To Harder, that shows that Denham is content with siding with his party over his constituents.

"If you really want to show you understand a community, you've got to make sure you fight for it not only when it's convenient, but when it actually matters," Harder said.

A Diverse District
Immigration is an integral issue for California's 10th District, where immigrants make up a large portion of the district's farm workers and over 40 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Reeves said the communities in the district are often proud to have such a diverse population, and local support for immigrants' rights and protections is driven by necessity.

"Our district sees workers that come from all parts of the world. That is a population that we absolutely rely on," he said.

Fluent in Spanish and with a wife of Mexican heritage, Denham has been outspoken in his support for "Dreamers," people brought to the country illegally as young children who are pushing for citizenship, and protections for immigrants. He has repeatedly nudged Congress to find pathways to citizenship for immigrants with efforts such as his ENLIST Act, which would allow "Dreamers" to gain lawful resident status by serving in the military. (The bill, cosponsored by many Democrats, has yet to receive a vote.)

Denham's efforts often clash with the anti-immigration sentiments of Trump and many others in the Republican party. Days before the election, Trump said he plans to issue an executive order ending birthright citizenship for those born in the U.S. to noncitizen parents, despite that right being enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

For Denham and his campaign, there is little room for these attitudes. Being pro-immigrant is "simply a matter of right and wrong," Whitfield said.

On this front, Harder agrees.

"I think this district is divided by political party, but we are also united on whether or not we should be protecting immigrants and 'Dreamers' that attend our school system," Harder said.

More than 23 million California residents are experiencing drought, about two-thirds of the state's population, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. In Stanislaus County, the largest county in the district, the land is "abnormally dry."

Both Denham and Harder oppose a proposal by California's State Water Board regionally known as the "water grab," which would redirect some of the district's water into the ocean to boost fishing stocks along the way.

The district had more than 7,000 farm operators and close to 5,000 farms as of 2012, according to the Department of Agriculture. If the water grab is enacted, the Modesto Irrigation District forecasts losses of $1.6 billion in output, $167 million in revenue, $330 million in labor income and 6,576 jobs.

Denham has endeared himself to the district as a farmer who leads on water issues, according to the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, which endorsed the congressman.

Legislation Denham wrote making it easier to fund water storage in the region was part of America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, signed into law last month.

"Water is the lifeblood of our agricultural community," Whitfield said.

Harder's understanding of the water crisis comes from his family's roots in the farming community, he wrote in an August op-ed in the Modesto Bee. Harder stressed the importance of building "water security" through long-term water conservation and sustainability plans.

Health Care
Health care has been a point of contention in the race for the 10th District, as it has been in many close races across the country. Health care was the issue most voters called important in a Gallup poll released Friday, and more Democrats thought it was important than Republicans.

Denham's vote for the American Health Care Act in 2017, the nearly successful effort to repeal and replace President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, could be a deciding factor in how residents of the district vote.

Harder believes in Medicare for all, pledges to fight for lower health care prices, and pointed out that more than 50 percent of the district is on Medicaid. He said that when Denham voted for the AHCA, he voted to gut Medicaid, potentially leaving over 100,000 constituents without affordable health care.

"Every person in this community has a loved one that would be hurt by that bill, by that vote, by our member of Congress," Harder said.

Denham said he is proud of his votes and has spoken of different ways to improve health care for the district, such as increasing access to doctors through expanded medical residency training programs. In a September debate with Harder, Denham asked how Harder plans on paying for a Medicare-for-all system and portrayed Harder as having "Bay Area" plans for a rural district.

"When you talk about Bay Area principles, this is one of their biggest principles," he said.

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