Drawing the Wrong Meaning About a House Race

by Stuart Rothenberg November 21, 2012 · 9:32 AM EST

Sometimes it’s not about the larger lessons for the national party or the demographics. Sometimes the better candidate just wins.

I’ll admit that I get a little defensive about the coverage of House races.

Only a handful of us pay a lot of attention to them (you know who you are — and thank you for caring) when they don’t involve a famous political name or a celebrity, and I’m offended when people who don’t know the difference between Connecticut’s 5th District and Nevada’s 1st District totally botch the “meaning” of a House race result because they don’t really know what happened during the contest.

Such was the case last week in The Wall Street Journal, when one of the newspaper’s regular contributors wrote about Republican David Valadao’s victory over Democrat John Hernandez in California’s 21st District (“GOP Lessons in the San Joaquin,” Nov. 16).

Valadao’s victory in a heavily Hispanic district “offers valuable lessons to a Republican Party” that has had problems with non-white voters, wrote the columnist, adding that Valadao’s win proves that the argument that “the GOP is too white, too right and too late” to make gains among Hispanics “isn’t true.”

I, too, think that Republicans have an opportunity to improve their standing with Hispanic voters, but not because of anything that happened in the 21st District. The only “lesson” from that race is that a strong candidate with a lot of money tends to defeat a very weak candidate with no money. Period.

The Journal columnist is correct that Valadao, a Portuguese-American assemblyman with an extensive background in farming and the dairy industry, was a good candidate. During a May 15 interview with the Republican, I found him to be personable and articulate. He had a 2010 legislative race under his belt and the ability to raise money, and I quickly concluded that he was a slam dunk for Congress.

In that meeting, Valadao sounded conservative but not particularly confrontational. He was a Republican who understood that his district included Democrats and that he would have to work in Congress with colleagues who were representing their constituents as much as he was representing his.

But the reason I was confident that he would win is that I had interviewed his opponent a couple of months earlier.

Democrat John Hernandez — not to be confused with former astronaut Jose Hernandez, who challenged Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in another California district and was heavily hyped by Democrats — didn’t have any of Valadao’s skills, which is why the 21st District contest was never promoted as highly competitive by national Democratic strategists.

Democratic insiders expected state Sen. Michael Rubio to be their nominee in this very competitive district, which was won by Barack Obama in 2008 but is not nearly the Democratic bastion that The Wall Street Journal columnist led you to believe.

Obama carried it with 52 percent in 2008 (about 9 points worse than he did statewide), but President George W. Bush carried the district comfortably with 57 percent in 2004 and Republican Carly Fiorina carried it in her unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Rubio decided against running because of family considerations, and the next logical nominee, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, also took a pass. Desperate for a credible nominee for the competitive open-seat race, Democratic insiders wooed Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong into the contest, even though his Hmong ethnicity wasn’t an ideal fit for this Hispanic district.

Though he was locked in a primary fight against Hernandez, Xiong was immediately placed on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Emerging Races list, and he was endorsed by Rubio, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa (who represented some of the area before redistricting), the California Labor Federation and a long list of current and former officeholders.

But Xiong couldn’t overcome Hernandez’s ethnic advantage in the primary, and national Democrats were left with a nominee who hadn’t raised money or put together a campaign and who didn’t have the candidate skills to compete in a high-profile race for Congress.

One measure of candidate strength and of campaign competitiveness is money. Through Oct. 17, Valadao raised a little more than $1.2 million, including $683,000 from individuals. Hernandez raised a grand total of $107,000, including just under $40,000 from individuals.

If that financial chasm wasn’t enough of a disadvantage for Hernandez, a Republican super PAC, Crossroads GPS, reacting to an erroneous Hernandez poll that showed the Democrat trailing by only 4 points, spent $640,000 on television to support Valadao. He won by 18 points.

Hernandez’s campaign was embarrassing. At one point, he sent out an email that misspelled Karl Rove’s name twice (“Carl Rove”), and his television ad looked more like a “Saturday Night Live” skit than a real TV spot for a serious contender.

Reading some big meaning about Hispanic voters and Republican messaging into the outcome of this race may be comforting, but it simply is wrong. Others should be careful to not make the same error.