The signs vie for space with political campaign placards at intersections along State Route 43 as a constant reminder to Central Valley residents. “No water, no jobs.”
Trees along the roadside are yellowed and shrunken. In the distance a tractor creates a cloud of dust as it makes its way across a field.
“Water=Jobs,” reads one billboard. “Tell Feinstein to pass [the] water bill,” reads another.
The region’s congressman is among the most vulnerable incumbents in California. But unlike other parts of the state, where Republicans are suffering thanks to Donald Trump’s place at the top of the ticket on Nov. 8, Rep. David Valadao renounced Trump early and has been able to keep his reelection campaign local.
In California’s Central Valley, the nation’s most productive agricultural region, the drought drives everything. And the ongoing fight over how much water flows could be the reason Democrats haven't been able to win in the 21st Congressional District with a national race.
On paper, Valadao’s seat looks like an easy play for Democrats trying to win back control of the House: 47% of registered voters are Democrats, 30% are Republican. Latinos make up nearly 75% of the population and 57% of registered voters in the district, one of California's largest, stretching from which covers a vast stretch of the Central Valley from Bakersfield north into Kettleman City and Wood Ranch.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has tried for years to flip the 21st, but Republicans have held it since it was created in 2012. (Before redistricting, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa represented much of the area.)
As Valadao was first elected in 2012 with 57.8% of the vote over a Latino businessman, President Obama topped Mitt Romney here 55% to 44%. In 2008, with different district boundaries, Obama won with 51.5%.
This time around, Democrats see hope in attorney Emilio Huerta, the son of labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. But Valadao is still, at this point, favored to win.
“No matter what I do, what event I do, if it’s a tele-town hall, if it’s a door-knock, doesn’t matter where I’m at, water is the first thing you hear about,” Valadao said in an interview from his campaign office here. “A basic thing like water shouldn’t be the No. 1 issue, but because of the situation that we face here it obviously is.”
California’s often scarce water supply has pitted a wide array of powerful forces —big cities, the agriculture industry and conservationists — against one another. Nowhere in the state is that quite as visible as in the Central Valley.
In Terra Bella and Porterville, fresh drinking water is brought in by trucks, and residents use community showers. Hardwick and other towns were out of water for a while, and water flowed from taps in East Porterville this August for the first time in three years.
Decades of state and national brawls over California water policy, and the feeling that the Central Valley has lost those fights as the drought continued, have led many local voters to one conclusion: blame Democrats, said Keith Smith, associate professor of political science at University of the Pacific.
“So many people’s work is tied to farming. They feel the water issue. The view is we’re just not allocating it where it ought to be allocated,” Smith said. If that’s what you see and hear from employers and neighbors, “you might begin to identify the Democratic Party as the problem.”
That’s how Valadao presents it, at least.
As he campaigns for a third term, the congressman stresses how much he has staked on the water battle. In Washington, he gets GOP leaders to add his water plan for increasing flows and storage of water as an amendment to other legislation. His bill has been attached to must-pass bills like spending authorizations — a move that infuriates many of the delegation’s Delta-area Democrats and prompted a a veto threat from the president.
His legislation focuses on funneling more water to San Joaquin Valley growers by reducing the amount used to support endangered fish populations. Democrats and environmental groups say it overrides federal legal protections for salmon, migratory birds and other fish and wildlife.
Valadao’s bill has repeatedly passed the House and sits in multiple forms in the Senate. But California’s Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, find the measure unacceptable, and Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, haven’t rushed to pick it up either. Feinstein has proposed her own water bill that would provide a holistic water plan for the state. Several House Democrats have proposed plans as well.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re almost there,” Valadao said during a KSEE 24 debate Thursday.
There hasn’t been talk of any agreement on Valadao’s bill — at least publicly. If it doesn’t pass in the weeks after the election, Valadao would have to start from scratch in the new year, potentially with a Democratic Senate and a slimmer House majority.
Huerta countered that the Central Valley can’t wait on a water bill that Democrats aren’t willing to pass. He said a Democratic representative would have an easier time reaching a compromise, especially given the current 39-14 domination the party has in California’s delegation.
Sitting in his Bakersfield campaign office, Huerta said he doesn’t have a plan for addressing the area’s water needs, yet. If elected, he’d wait to craft water legislation with other House members.
“The ability to reach across the table and get bipartisan support for real water legislation is required, and that hasn’t taken place here,” Huerta said. “Having any congressional representative who is willing to work on a bipartisan basis will be more successful than one who doesn’t even take into consideration the impact that a water delivery system may have on other stakeholders.”
That idea may not be enough to sway a district that’s consistently sent Republicans to Congress.
Only eight U.S. congressional districts have a higher Latino population than the 21st. With demographic trends giving Democrats a boost, the national party has always eyed the district and spent time and attention here.
Local activists identified that as part of the problem. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee picks a candidate with little feedback from those who live here and runs a generic Democratic campaign crafted from Washington.
“The challengers until now have not been running a Valley race,” said Democratic Party activist Victor Moheno. And a “Valley” race involves a significant ground game and a focus on local issues — like water — that cut “across party lines.”
Some hoped Huerta’s well-known name, and decades working in the district helping open banks and building senior and low-income housing, would bridge the gap this year. Moheno isn’t sure it will be enough to counter Valadao’s strengths as a dairy farmer with roots in the agricultural community.
Valadao has outspent Huerta throughout the race and had $1.3 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, nearly double what Huerta had left headed into the campaign’s final five weeks.
The family name may help Huerta with farmworkers, but it won’t get him anywhere with landowners who need water to stay afloat and don’t think fondly of his mother’s work organizing farmworkers, Moheno said.
“She is roundly hated by the farmers,” Moheno said. “They are writing big checks to Valadao.”
Either way, Democrats are hoping Huerta rides a national anti-Trump, high-turnout tide on Nov. 8. If Valadao survives what could be a devastating night for Republican politicians across the country, he knows he’ll face other fights down the line.
“Look at the numbers in the district — it’s always going to be a tough race for a Republican.”
Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter
Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics