Voters in the Central Valley will vote in a special election on Tuesday to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Republican Rep. Devin Nunes stepped down in January to run Donald Trump’s new social media company.
The top candidate will represent the former 22nd congressional district, which covers a majority of Fresno County and parts of Tulare County, through early January 2023.
“It’s a one-time seat for someone to win and be in Congress for a very short period of time,” said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic redistricting expert.
Here are five things to know about running:
Why is this election taking place?
Nunes’ abrupt retirement has sparked a costly game of musical chairs in the San Joaquin Valley. This happened shortly after the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district lines. Had Nunes not resigned, he would have been reelected in a more Democratic district than the heavily Republican ones he had represented for nearly two decades. Or, because members of Congress aren’t required to live in their districts, Nunes could have run in another district against another GOP incumbent.
Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a special election on April 5 to fill the remainder of Nunes’ term.
The special election is expected to cost taxpayers in Fresno and Tulare counties between $1.4 million and $1.6 million, according to the Fresno County Registrar of Voters and the Sun-Gazette newspaper.
Who is Nunes?
Nunes was first elected to Congress in 2002. The son of a longtime dairy farming family, Nunes has been a vocal critic of climate change efforts and environmental regulations that he said were hurting the region’s agricultural industry.
Locals appreciated his efforts to increase water supplies for farmers, although his proposals were often blocked in the nation’s capital. Nunes took action to help drought victims. When hundreds of wells dried up in East Porterville, the then-congressman helped organize water deliveries. Yet even some of his allies feared his focus on Valley issues would be diverted by his next role: Nunes became one of Trump’s staunchest and fiercest defenders, especially during the two impeachments of the President. He was at the center of the Democrats’ national scorn.
Nunes, 48, has also made headlines for several lawsuits he filed in an effort to quash criticism, including a failed 2019 effort against Twitter and a Republican strategist over parody accounts named @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow. He said the accounts defamed him, costing him political support when he was re-elected in 2018.
Who wants to replace him?
Four Republicans and two Democrats courted voters.
Political analysts say Republican Connie Conway, the state’s former legislative leader, has emerged as the frontrunner. Elizabeth Heng, the GOP candidate from Fresno who also garnered attention in the race, is the daughter of Chinese and Cambodian immigrants who fled the Khmer Rouge. After grad school, she launched an encrypted internet browser and in 2018 ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno).
“Connie has the best chance because people know her name,” said Amanda Renteria, a Democratic Central Valley native who ran unsuccessfully for Congress and for governor. “People will remember Elizabeth Heng just because she faced Costa not too long ago. She kind of brought in a younger, newer audience.
Conway entered the race late and raised $82,893 from January to March 16, according to the Federal Election Commission. The 71-year-old described herself as a seat ‘keeper’ with no intention of seeking re-election.
“If there was somewhere to go, I think Congressman Nunes probably would have taken that opportunity and we wouldn’t have this special election,” she said. “But then I even have to ask myself, ‘Would I even look for it if there was?’ and at this point in my life, it pleased me to complete this work.
When Heng first ran for Congress in 2018, she said voters made it clear that water, immigration and education were among the biggest issues facing the valley.
“We always talk about the same problems. They are just much worse,” said Heng, 37. “We need the next generation to step up, speak up and fight for our future.
Heng has raised more money than any other contestant, raising $214,900 through March 16, according to the FEC. Eric Garcia, a Clovis Democrat and former Marine, was second, with $205,715.
Garcia, 34, said he always intended to run against Nunes, and his resignation didn’t change his plan.
“I have moved forward so that I can finally give our district, before it disappears as it is now, real representation as opposed to not having it when Devin was in office for over 10 years,” said he declared.
Other candidates on the ballot are Republican business owners Michael Maher, 38, and Matt Stoll, 44, and Democratic water resources manager Lourin Hubbard, 33.
Why is this an unusual election?
This is because the 22nd Congressional District, as it is currently constituted, will no longer exist after this year.
Under new district maps, Nunes’ Republican electoral base was pushed into surrounding districts. Almost half of the Nunes district was combined with about half of the Costa district to create the new 21st congressional district. Costa, a Fresno native, is running for re-election in that district.
A small portion of Nunes District was placed in the new 22nd District, which encompasses much of Kern County and parts of Tulare and Kings counties. Incumbent Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) announced his candidacy for re-election in that district.
What happens next?
Voters can mail in their ballot or show up in person at polling centers on April 5.
If a candidate does not win a majority of votes, the top two candidates will advance to the June 7 election, the same day as the statewide primary election. That means candidates running to fill Nunes’ seat could also find themselves simultaneously campaigning for another congressional district.
Maher, Stoll and Garcia have all been certified to run against Costa in the new 21st District, according to the secretary of state’s office.
“Talk about a confusing ballot,” Conway said. “Hopefully it’s cut and dry on April 5, but it’s a big ask with six candidates.”
Times writers Seema Mehta and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.