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How a showdown between Central Valley Democrats could help the GOP keep control of Congress

Side-by-side closeup photos of Melissa Hurtado and Rudy Salas
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado and former state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, both Democrats, are battling in California’s 22nd Congressional District for Republican incumbent David Valadao’s House seat.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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On a recent Friday, state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) mingled with supporters inside the Kern County firefighters’ hall, posing for pictures, chitchatting about politics and raising $36 apiece from those seeking to elect her to replace the area’s Republican congressman.

For the record:

12:29 p.m. March 1, 2024An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. Melissa Hurtado spoke out against an early version of a farmworker unionization bill in 2018. She did so in 2021.

Melissa Hurtado sitting in front of a bookshelf, her hands in her lap
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado launched her campaign for Congress after being contacted by Emily’s List, a group that seeks to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

That same night, 30 miles north up State Route 99, Rudy Salas, a former Democratic member of the state Assembly and current Cal State Bakersfield professor, handed out hats and work boots as part of a food and clothing drive at the Forty Acres, United Farm Workers’ historic former headquarters in Delano. He was there to remind them that he was running for Congress once again.

Either would seem to be a solid choice for the Central Valley’s 22nd Congressional District, where the Democratic Party far outweighs the GOP in voter registration. But the Republican incumbent, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, has proven formidable.

The fight between the two prominent Democrats to unseat Valadao has become so fierce that there is a possibility neither will survive the March 5 primary, ensuring a Republican will hold a congressional seat considered pivotal in determining which party controls the House of Representatives.

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Rudy Salas standing in a residential street, raising a hand toward his chin
Former state Assemblyman Rudy Salas has the financial backing and endorsements of top Democratic leaders and groups. He lost to incumbent GOP Rep. David Valadao by a small margin in 2022.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Salas, 46, is the clear choice among top Democratic leaders in Washington, who have spent more than half a million dollars supporting his campaign. He has been endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla, the California Democratic Party and the United Farm Workers after challenging Valadao in 2022 and losing by about 3,100 votes.

Hurtado, whose state Senate district overlaps with the vast majority of the congressional district, launched her campaign after being contacted by Emily’s List, a group that seeks to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Some Democrats fear that Salas and Hurtado may fracture the Democratic vote in the March 5 primary so much that Valadao and far-right Republican Chris Mathys will be able to finish in the top spots. In California’s top-two primary system, the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of their parties, go on to the November election.

Democrats and Republicans are flooding the race with funding, believing the incumbent is vulnerable because he voted to impeach former President Trump for being what Valadao described as a “driving force” behind the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Republican incumbent Rep David Valadao faces a primary challenge from a conservative ranch owner, while two Democrats battle each other for a spot on the November ballot.

Feb. 1, 2024

“This is such a big deal that [top Democratic leaders have] come out and said, ‘We’re going to go against a sitting member of the Senate and support Rudy,’” said Mark Martinez, chair of the political science department at Cal State Bakersfield.

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The 22nd Congressional District covers vast swaths of farmland across Kern, Kings and Tulare counties and encompasses the cities of Bakersfield, Delano, Shafter and Porterville.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified the district as a “red to blue” seat — or one they believe they can flip — and the House Majority PAC, the super PAC affiliated with the chamber’s Democratic leadership, began running Spanish-language ads supporting Salas.

Hurtado, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle in fundraising, and her campaign has struggled. While Salas’ campaign reports making contact with at least 20,000 voters, Hurtado said her campaign has not done on-the-ground canvassing due to a lack of funds. As of mid-February, Salas had raised over $740,000, and Hurtado about $76,000. (Valadao had raised just under $2.3 million)

In an interview, Hurtado said she did not consider running until she was contacted by Emily’s List. She had weekly meetings with the organization to discuss fundraising and her campaign up until December, when it became clear the organization was not going to back her.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado's reflection looking into the camera as she faces a large round mirror
“I know my district even more now than I did back in 2018,” Melissa Hurtado says of her election to the state Senate at age 30.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“I am perfectly fine figuring this out on my own. I did this on my own for the first time I ran for state Senate in 2018,” Hurtado said. “I know my district even more now than I did back in 2018.”

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Hurtado was first elected to the Legislature’s upper chamber that year, defeating Republican incumbent Andy Vidak at age 30 to become the youngest woman elected to the state Senate.

The state senator grew up in the Central Valley and was elected to the Sanger City Council after living through two recessions and realizing, she says, how poverty affected the valley’s residents, including her own family.

She believes she can unseat Valadao by building a coalition of independent, Republican and Democratic voters.

“There’s a lot at stake,” she told the dozen or so supporters who attended the fundraising event that Friday night in Bakersfield. “I think, in my humble opinion, our democracy is really at stake here. And I think that people feel it, they understand it. And it’s going to take each and every one of us to speak up, to try to listen to one another, to try to understand one another, and to really overcome our differences.”

Salas, who teaches an American government and politics class at Cal State Bakersfield, said his campaign started canvassing earlier than he did ahead of the 2022 election that he narrowly lost to Valadao that November.

He has crisscrossed the district, traveling to small farming towns like Avenal, knocking on doors in Bakersfield, and reminding residents in Corcoran about his past work in the state Assembly, where he served five terms.

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“We’re out in every single community knocking and talking to voters, telling them how important it is to get out to vote to make sure that their voices are heard,” Salas said. “A lot of doors that I go to, people know who I am because of stuff that we’ve done in their community.”

As a member of the state Assembly, Salas became an advocate for farmworkers, due in part to his own family’s history of working in the fields, and advocated for funding for school districts and access to clean water.

Salas and Hurtado overlapped in the state Legislature, where they were political allies. When Hurtado’s 2022 state Senate race came down to a recount, Salas helped to cure ballots to make sure they were counted. Hurtado won by 13 votes.

Rudy Salas, standing with Dolores Huerta, smiles as she speaks
Rudy Salas with labor activist Dolores Huerta at an event for his 2022 congressional bid. Salas has worked with rival Melissa Hurtado, but has differed with her on issues including those affecting farmworkers.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

While the two share similar views on issues such as healthcare and immigration, they have differed on reproductive rights and farmworker rights.

California Rep. David Valadao is being challenged by Assemblymember Rudy Salas, who would be the first Latino sent to Congress from the Central Valley.

Nov. 7, 2022

The UFW’s decision to endorse Salas was an easy choice, said union spokesperson Antonio De Loera-Brust.

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“We have a real long-term relationship with Rudy Salas, and he’s the real deal,” De Loera-Brust said. “The fact that his opponent is Melissa Hurtado just makes it even easier. … On every critical issue that the UFW has faced, there’s a sharp contrast.”

He pointed to Salas’ record: Salas voted to increase overtime pay for farmworkers and to ban pesticides harmful to their children; joined marching farmworkers; and supported legislation that would make it easier for farmworkers to unionize. Hurtado spoke out against an earlier iteration of the unionization bill in 2021 and did not record a vote when it passed in 2022.

Hurtado said the farmworkers she spoke with had lost hours and jobs due to the overtime pay legislation. The pesticide bill, she said, cited an outdated study. And the unionization legislation, which the UFW has already used to successfully unionize a farm, didn’t have support in her district, she said.

“The farmworkers I would run into or have personal conversations with — they weren’t supportive of it,” she said. She noted that she has advocated for farmworkers in other areas, such as expanding job training for laborers.

Salas’ campaign has also sought to differentiate himself from Hurtado with an ad that criticizes her for not casting a vote on abortion access legislation: She did not vote on a measure to remove co-pays to make abortion care more accessible, or on a bill to ensure no one will be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy or experiencing pregnancy loss.

Hurtado defended herself as a “reproductive healthcare advocate,” citing her support for 2022’s Proposition 1, which enshrined abortion rights in the state Constitution.

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“We are pleased that State Sen. Hurtado took more pro-reproductive freedom votes in the last year, but we remain highly concerned with her past voting record,” said Shannon Olivieri Hovis of Reproductive Freedom for All, which in 2022 labeled Hurtado as “hostile” to reproductive freedom. “The road to restoring the federal right to abortion and expanding access to care runs right through the House and this crucial district in California.”

Low voter turnout could make the race unpredictable. As of Wednesday, about 19,200 ballots had been submitted, and voter turnout was higher among Republican than Democrats. While Republicans make up 27% of registered voters, they were responsible for 42% of returned ballots. Democrat make up 42% of registered voters and accounted for 44% of returned ballots.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., said that turnout is looking historically low in the Central Valley, which could make the race volatile — but that while a Republican-only runoff is possible, it remains unlikely.

“In that kind of environment, you have a lot of people bed-wetting about what happens if two Republicans make the runoff,” he said. To stave off that outcome, he said, Democrats are infusing the race with money in an effort to ensure their party’s endorsed candidate survives the primary.

Among Hurtado’s strengths, her supporters say, is her vantage point as a sitting elected official who is delivering for the community. They point to her efforts to secure funding for small-town police and fire departments, and her advocacy for residents’ water rights.

Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said he had seen Hurtado vote against the state Senate Democratic Caucus in the interest of her district, showing her authentic commitment to her constituents.

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“How much more tested can you be than Melissa Hurtado? She’s ready for a partisan fight,” he said.

Martinez, the political science chair at Cal State Bakersfield, said Hurtado owes her own state Senate wins to Salas, who did on-the-ground canvassing for Democrats during a tough election year.

“It doesn’t make any sense, because she doesn’t have the presence and community in Kern County,” he said. “Melissa’s young, she’s green, and she really doesn’t understand the broader picture.”

Salas appears to be well-known in Bakersfield. Signs declaring support for him line frontyards and farmland along the highway. He said that while he benefits from high-level endorsements, he also has local support, from mayors and teachers associations.

“Those are people that live in our communities,” he said. “The people that are here are actually putting in the work and getting their family and friends to vote as well.”

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