WASHINGTON ― You may not know Jeff Denham. He’s a Republican who has represented California’s Central Valley in Congress for six years. In any other year, he’d probably be skating to victory in a re-election unlikely to attract much national attention.
This year is different. Donald Trump is running for president at the top of the GOP ticket. And if Democrats are going to make gains in the Republican-controlled House, they need to win seats like California’s 10th District.
For Denham, it’s all because of who his party has chosen to lead the ticket in 2016. Denham’s support of Trump, albeit tepid, is the primary reason the Modesto Bee didn’t endorse him, after backing him in every election since 2010, when he first won.
“Nothing changed in this district,” said Mike Dunbar, editor of The Modesto Bee’s opinion page. “The only thing that changed is Donald Trump is running for president.”
Dunbar, who has lived in the district for 28 years, said the paper gave Denham multiple chances to distance himself from Trump. In the end, Denham stuck by the nominee, and the paper endorsed his Democratic challenger ― beekeeper and almond farmer Michael Eggman.
The editorial board’s endorsement was more about frustration with Denham and Trump than about support of the Democrat.
“Trump’s campaign remains viable only because otherwise honorable people refuse to rise in opposition,” the newspaper’s editorial said. “That includes Rep. Denham of California’s 10th District.”
“We’re not pretending Michael Eggman is a top-tier candidate,” the editorial continued. “What makes Eggman preferable is that, if elected he will owe his allegiance to those who voted against Trump.”
Denham has been trying to quell concerns about Trump. After audio leaked of Trump bragging in 2005 about sexually assaulting women, Denham’s wife sent a letter to constituents, saying Denham was just as offended and disappointed in the nominee as she was.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) campaigned with Denham last week, one of his stops on a lengthy tour aimed at minimizing the damage Trump may inflict on down-ballot races.
Polling conducted by the House Majority PAC on Oct. 10 and Oct. 11 put Denham down by 1 point. A Latino Decisions poll conducted during the same time found Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 6 points among 402 likely voters in the district. A poll in late September by Denham’s campaign gave the incumbent a sizable advantage over Eggman.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee jumped into the district’s TV market right after Labor Day. So far, between Eggman’s campaign and the DCCC, seven ads have been released. All focused on Denham’s connection to Trump.
The National Republican Campaign Committee and Denham, who has more than $1 million to spend, began advertising two weeks after the Democratic ad campaign began.
California’s 10th District is a seat Democrats should win in the year of Trump. But the pickup won’t be easy. The Cook Political Report political tracker moved the race from “leaning Republican” to “toss up” three weeks ago.
Denham’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A national Republican operative said early voting numbers were trending much like in 2012, which favored the incumbent.
But on Election Day, many Republican voters may stay home ― and not just because of the lack of enthusiasm for Trump. The operative noted that two Democrats are running for California’s open U.S. Senate seat.
“If 5 percent of Republicans stay home, then that’s going to be a problem,” the operative said, requesting anonymity to speak freely about the race.
“If there is a Trump effect and if Democrats are going to make a 20-seat gain [in the House], they’ve got to win this race,” the operative added. “If it’s a really bad night for Republicans, this is a district that’s going to be lost for us.”
Eggman knows Trump is helping him.
“I’m a bee-keeper not a pundit, but I’ve known that this race has always been a good opportunity,” Eggman told HuffPost recently. “I think it’s getting the attention because Denham is out of touch with the Valley values that we hold so dear. People are rejecting the Trump-Denham ticket.”
Eggman challenged Denham in 2014 and lost by 12 points. He said his mom encouraged him to try again. “She would say, ‘Mijo, when you see a problem you stop and fix it,’” he said, pointing to the district’s 10.9-percent unemployment and its outsized number of children living in poverty.
This time, Democrats have a slight voter registration advantage, which Eggman attributed to Latino residents registering for the first time.
And they have Trump.