In California, Democrats tout one Hispanic candidate and ignore another

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 30, 2012 · 1:12 PM EDT

Jose and John Hernandez are both Democrats running for Congress in competitive districts in California with growing Latino populations, but the Democratic Party has embraced one of them and ignored the other.

National Democratic strategists are in love with Jose Hernandez and count the retired NASA astronaut as one of their top House candidates anywhere in the country. He’s running in the 10th District in Northern California where Barack Obama won 51 percent of the vote in 2008 and one-quarter of the voting age population is Hispanic.

Hernandez is locked in a very competitive race with incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham (R) and has turned his national attention into big fundraising dollars. Through the end of September, the Democrat raised a considerable $1.3 million even though he trailed the congressman’s $2.1 million raised.

The two men faced off in the June 5 primary, along with three other candidates, and Denham finished first with 49 percent followed by Hernandez (28 percent), but that didn’t dampen Democratic spirits. With just two weeks before Election Day, it looks like Hernandez narrowly trails Denham, but the race is close and Republican strategists are nervous.

Less than an hour down Interstate 5, another congressional race is playing out very differently.

The 21st District is more Democratic than the 10th (Obama would have won it with 54 percent) and more Hispanic (49 percent voting age population compared to 25 percent), but Democratic strategists will hardly give John Hernandez the time of day.

On paper, John Hernandez, who is not related to Jose, looks like an ideal candidate. He’s CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a first-time candidate who has never held public office and can credibly run as an outsider at a time when politicians are particularly unpopular.

But John has failed to run a top-tier campaign or raise even the minimum amount of money necessary to be considered a credible candidate. Through May 16, Hernandez raised just $9,000 from individual contributors, loaned his campaign some money, and finished the reporting period $8,000 in debt. That was a critical time before the primary when Democratic strategists had to decide whether to support him or find another candidate to get behind.

In comparison, through the same time period, Jose Hernandez raised $600,000 and had $367,000 in the bank, which is much more in line with credible congressional candidates.

Democratic strategists desperately wanted — and needed — to compete with Republicans in the 21st District, and were so unimpressed with Hernandez that they recruited a Democratic candidate against him in the primary. They ended up supporting (without officially endorsing) an Asian-American candidate who didn’t even live in the district.

But even though John Hernandez was running a mediocre campaign, his last name helped him finish in the top two and gain a spot in the November general election. State Assemblyman David Valadao (R) finished first with 57 percent, Hernandez second with 23 percent, and Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong (D) finished third with 21 percent.

Now, even though Democrats can’t afford to cede any Obama districts to Republicans if they want to get back to a House majority, they have no interest in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditure money into the race because they don’t believe John’s campaign is a good investment. Through September, Hernandez raised $93,000 but was still carrying considerable debt, leaving him little to no money to communicate with voters via direct mail or television ads. In comparison, Valadao, who is of Portuguese descent, raised $1.2 million through September.

But it’s more than money problems for John Hernandez; it’s the overall nature of the campaign. His minimal television ads thus far have had low production quality and he misspelled GOP strategist Karl Rove’s name (i.e. “Carl Rove”) twice in a recent email to supporters.

The tale of Jose and John Hernandez is a good example of how the national parties make decisions on where they invest money and that ethnicity is not enough to garner national attention. Even though a district might look like an attractive target because of the partisanship or a candidate might look to have an impressive resume, it’s up to the candidate to cross the first threshold of credibility before the national party comes along to assist the rest of the way.