Column: Can an extremely well-funded Democratic upstart end the congressional career of Devin Nunes?
The Andrew Janz for Congress headquarters in an empty storefront on North Blackstone Avenue was supposed to be closed Monday, but I pushed on the glass door and it swung open.
Inside, it was quiet. Like all campaign headquarters, it was messy with a temporary feel in the air. Folding chairs, folding tables, maps on easels. A giant bouquet of flowers sat on a counter.
Three people were working.
Two of them were sitting at a long table, counting money.
“This is what came in the mail today,” said Janz campaign manager Heather Greven, who, at the ripe old age of 27 has been working in politics for a decade.
She scooped up a stack of checks. There were so many, she had to use both hands. Had she made a single pile, it would have been at least 6 inches high.
From what I could see, the checks came from all over the place, not just the 22nd Congressional District, which runs north from Tulare to the northeast side of Fresno in the heart of the Central Valley.
Donations ranged from $10 to $500.
“Wow,” I said. “I’ve been writing about political campaigns for a long time, but I’ve never seen a stack of checks like that.”
Greven laughed. “We’d never show a reporter this,” she said. “But you walked in.”
Democrat Janz, a local prosecutor and first-time candidate, is running against Republican incumbent Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has been such a close ally of Donald Trump that the president recently suggested Nunes deserved the Medal of Freedom.
Nunes, whose campaign finance statements are awash in donations from individuals who have given the maximum allowed by law, and from corporate PACs, has raised $10 million so far this cycle.
Shockingly, though, Janz has raised more than $7 million.
(Bear in mind, this is a district where 235,000 people voted for their congressional representative in the November 2016 election, and only 133,000 voted for the seat in 2014, the last midterm contest.)
Greven said she thought they’d be lucky to raise $1 million when the Janz campaign began 19 months ago. The unexpected gush of money has allowed the campaign to advertise widely, to pay 10 staffers and 25 canvassers. And that’s in addition to the volunteers who have been showing up in droves to make phone calls and knock on doors.
“It’s crazy,” Greven said. “I will never run a race that raises this much money again.”
With all that money, which will be hard to spend by election day, Janz and Nunez have been hammering away at each other on TV, radio and online.
Nunes portrays Janz, who grew up in this district, as out of touch with its citizens, of embracing “San Francisco values,” which is code for — what? — being gay friendly and Trump resistant?
Janz, in turn, has portrayed Nunes as a creature of Washington who has turned his back on his constituents by refusing to hold town hall meetings. Instead of keeping a check on presidential power in his congressional role, says Janz, Nunes has tried to impede the Robert Mueller investigation into whether the Trump campaign was complicit in Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election.
Near Nunes’ hometown of Tulare, an independent expenditure group working to flip the House, Fight Back California, has plastered billboards along Highway 99 accusing Nunes of being silent on family separations at the Mexican border, of being “everywhere but here” and of “milking the truth,” an allusion to Nunes’ family dairy farm business.
I wanted to visit Nunes’ campaign office to get a sense of the vibe there, but I couldn’t find a physical address, just a post office box. I emailed the campaign, but have not heard back.
Not a big surprise.
Nunes, who was spotted at a Fresno Bulldogs game the other night, does not make himself available to newspaper reporters. Last year, he unleashed on a Bee reporter who asked whether he planned to hold any forums “that are open to the public” during the election cycle.
“Your paper is a joke to even raise these issues,” Nunes replied. “I actually feel bad for the people who work at the Bee because sadly, it’s become just a left wing rag.”
He said he holds plenty of educational meetings with voters, but there is no getting around the fact that he has not been willing to meet in a town hall format with constituents who might confront him about, say, the Russia investigation, or his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or ethics complaints against him.
In fact, he is not just running against Janz this year. He’s running against the Bee, which he has made into the bogeyman of his campaign.
His now infamous magazine-style mailer— 38 color pages on heavy stock — was a sustained attack on the Fresno Bee, which until this year, had endorsed Nunes every two years since he first ran for Congress in 2002. Earlier this month, the Bee endorsed Janz.
The mailer’s “stories” accused the Bee of hyping a liberal stunt for simply reporting on a lawsuit challenging Nunes’ right to call himself a farmer on the ballot. (Nunes won.) It contains reprints of favorable stories about Nunes from the National Review and the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.
The back cover shows a rusted-out, sinking ship called “The Fresno Bee,” flying the colors of Russia, a red flag adorned with a hammer and sickle.
A campaign staffer in Janz’s Visalia office, who showed me a paper copy of the magazine, pointed out something I had not noticed earlier: The cover illustrations also depict sinking “RESIST” banners, in pink, white and blue, the colors of the transgender pride flag, a not-so-veiled attack on those San Francisco values.
At least 110,000 of the mailers were sent to Republican households.
Why run against the local paper? Because it works.
A Nunes supporter told me he thinks that the district’s GOP voters, already agitated by the hearings to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, are delighted by the mailer, that it plays right into their distrust of the media and their love of “red meat.”
Even with an unprecedented infusion of Democratic cash and energy, Nunes is expected to win handily on Nov 6.
If the House of Representatives flips from Republican to Democratic control next year, the 22nd District, in all likelihood, will not be part of any blue wave.
But Democrats here, at least, will have something to look forward to: A Californian — U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, or “Sleazy,” as the president calls the Democrat — will likely take over the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
That will be some consolation prize.
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