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This California congressional race may turn out to be a prime example of the GOP's worst fears

This California congressional race may turn out to be a prime example of the GOP's worst fears
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) filed legislation to allow people brought into the country illegally as children to earn citizenship through military service. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

When Rep. Jeff Denham started this latest campaign, most observers thought he would probably win.

The third-term Republican running to represent the Modesto area in Congress is up against Democratic beekeeper Michael Eggman, the same man he beat just two years ago by 12 points. And Denham won his seat in 2012 even as a majority of his constituents voted for President Obama.

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But with Donald Trump as the deeply divisive Republican nominee for president and no Republican running for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, those same observers are now wondering if keeping a GOP House member in office will be enough of a motivation for voters to go to the polls or lick the mail-in ballot stamp. Denham hopes it will be.

"People know me in this district. People know I will stand up to my own party," Denham said.

If that isn't enough, Denham's 10th Congressional District may end up being an example of what Republicans fear could happen across the country: Voters turned off by Trump's rhetoric may not vote at all, and the party could lose seats it has usually held. Early voting is underway in California and 26 other states, and there is little time left for Republicans to change the momentum.

The good news for Republicans is Democrats need to win 30 new seats to retake the majority, a heavy lift even in the current environment. While they are expected to reduce the size of Republicans' majority by at least 15 seats — in part by winning seats in Democrat-friendly states like California — few outside the party expect them to win enough races to take back the House.

In the 10th District, which includes Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County, Democrats were slightly ahead on mail-in ballot returns last week, but not by enough to stand out, according to data compiled by Political Data Inc.

Trump's comments about immigrants, especially his calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, could pose a problem in a district where almond and walnut farms dot the San Joaquin Valley and the population is more than 40% Latino. Voters there have historically tended to be Republican, but have been fairly split in recent years. Democrats recently took the lead in voter registration in Stanislaus County.

Many Republican representatives and senators disavowed comments Trump made in 2005 when he was recorded bragging about grabbing women without their consent. Since video of the incident was released this month, multiple women have accused him of past sexual misconduct. Only a few dozen party members have called for Trump to get out of the race or said they would not support him, and Democrats have lambasted those who did not. Denham called the comments "beyond inappropriate" but has not backed away from supporting his party's nominee (though he doesn't especially like to use Trump's name).

Denham said he's not running this campaign any differently. That means spending a lot of time walking the district, talking about water and immigration. Denham bucked his party to support immigration reform a few years ago, and with a high Latino population in the area, it's still one of his main talking points: "This is the same grass-roots effort I do every time, and it's served me well every time," he said.

Denham has done better with voters in the district than Democrats running for president or U.S. Senate. He was reelected with 52.7% in 2012, the same year his district supported Obama with 50.5% of the vote and Democrat Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Senate by 52.1%.

With $2.3 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, Denham also had a massive fundraising lead over Eggman's $504,314 going into the final weeks of the campaign.

Eggman, whom Obama endorsed last week, said the campaign feels different this year — and he pointed to Trump as the reason. Eggman lost to Denham in 2014 with 43.9% of the vote even though more than 51% of the district supported Democrat Jerry Brown for governor that year.

"I've seen the difference on the ground. Last time when you got a down it was like a punch in the gut, this time when a down comes I still feel like I've got the wind at my back," Eggman said of the normal ups and downs of the campaign. "People here in the Valley don't like Trump's dismissive, nasty agenda and they certainly don't like that Congressman Denham supports him."

Like Eggman, Democrats across the country are painting Republicans as complicit in their nominee's rhetoric: Trump appears in House campaign ads in many vulnerable races, including in California.

In the state's 49th District, Democratic challenger Doug Applegate is running a scathing ad about Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) that plays audio from the leaked 2005 comments Trump made about touching women without their consent. In the Central Valley's 21st District, the national Democratic Party is using commercials and ads to tie Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) to Trump, even though the Republican has said for months that he won't support the party's nominee.

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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a series of recent news releases, said Republicans who haven't outright renounced Trump have enabled or embraced an "alleged serial sexual predator."

Republican House leaders, arguing that preserving their majority in Washington would be a check on Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton if she wins, stepped up for California members in the last week.

Denham's Modesto campaign headquarters was the first stop for House Speaker Paul Ryan last week as he made a three-day swing through the state on behalf of California's more vulnerable House Republicans and two Republicans trying to win seats that have been held by Democrats.

Political handicappers are calling the 10th District a toss-up at this point.

"Denham may have $2.3 million on hand to Democratic bee farmer Michael Eggman's $503,000, but he's sitting in a 42 percent Latino district that twice voted narrowly for President Obama and still hasn't rescinded his endorsement of Trump," the nonpartisan analysts at the Cook Political Report wrote to explain why they moved the race from their "leans Republican" category — meaning they expected Denham to win but Eggman had a chance — to their "toss-up" category.

For most of the year, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, rated the seat as "likely" to remain with Denham. Then, in September, he moved it to "leaning" Republican, before flipping it to a "toss-up" this month.

If this were a normal election year, University of the Pacific associate political science professor Keith Smith would expect to see Denham win handily. But there are only Democrats running for California's open U.S. Senate seat, and if the district's Republicans aren't excited to vote for Trump, Denham is it for them.

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"For Republicans in his district, he's the most interesting thing on the ballot," Smith said.

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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