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Democrats loved hating on Devin Nunes. Now there’s a six-way race to replace him

Former Rep. Devin Nunes.
Six candidates are vying to replace former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who resigned in January to lead Donald Trump’s social media company.
(Andrew Harrer / Associated Press)

Voters in the Central Valley will cast their ballots Tuesday in a special election to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Republican Rep. Devin Nunes resigned in January to head Donald Trump’s new social media company.

The top candidate will represent the old 22nd Congressional District, which covers a majority of Fresno County and portions of Tulare County, through early January 2023.

“It’s a one-time seat for somebody to win and be in Congress for a very short period of time,” said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic redistricting expert.

Here are five things to know about the race:

Why is this election happening?

Nunes’ abrupt retirement triggered a costly game of musical chairs in the San Joaquin Valley. It occurred shortly after the once-every-decade redrawing of congressional district lines. Had Nunes not stepped down, he would have faced reelection in a district more Democratic than the strongly Republican ones he had represented for nearly two decades. Or, because members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, Nunes could have run in another district against a fellow GOP incumbent.

Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a special election on April 5 to fill the remainder of Nunes’ term.

The special election is expected to cost Fresno and Tulare counties’ taxpayers between $1.4 million and $1.6 million, according to the Fresno County Registrar of Voters and the Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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The controversial San Joaquin Valley congressman has served in the House since 2003.

Who is Nunes?

Nunes was first elected to Congress in 2002. The son of a longtime dairy farm family, Nunes has loudly denounced efforts to fight climate change and environmental regulations that he claimed harmed the region’s agriculture industry.

Locals appreciated his efforts to increase water supplies for farmers, though his proposals were often stymied in the nation’s capital. Nunes took action to aid the drought-stricken. When hundreds of wells ran dry in East Porterville, the then-congressman helped arrange water deliveries. Still, even some of his allies worried that his focus on valley issues was diverted by his next role: Nunes became one of Trump’s most loyal and fierce defenders, especially during the president’s two impeachments. He was the focus of nationwide scorn from Democrats.

Nunes, 48, also drew headlines for several lawsuits he filed in an attempt to quash criticism, notably an unsuccessful 2019 effort against Twitter and a Republican strategist over parody accounts named @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow. He said the accounts defamed him, costing him political support in his 2018 reelection.

The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee has filed yet another lawsuit against a major media organization, claiming he was defamed in a magazine story about his family’s Iowa dairy farm.

Who wants to replace him?

Four Republicans and two Democrats have been courting voters.

Political analysts say Republican Connie Conway, a former state legislative leader, has emerged as the front-runner. Elizabeth Heng, a GOP candidate from Fresno who has also received attention in the race, is the daughter of Chinese and Cambodian immigrants who fled the Khmer Rouge. After graduate school, she started an encrypted internet browser, and in 2018 unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno).

“Connie has the best chance because people know her name,” said Amanda Renteria, a Democratic Central Valley native who unsuccessfully ran for Congress and governor. “People will remember Elizabeth Heng just because she went against Costa not too long ago. She’s sort of brought a younger, newer audience.”

Conway entered the race late and raised $82,893 from January to March 16, according to the Federal Election Commission. The 71-year-old has described herself as a “caretaker” for the seat with no plans to seek reelection.

“If there was a place to go on, I think Congressman Nunes probably would have taken that opportunity and we wouldn’t be having this special election,” she said. “But then I have to even ask myself, ‘Would I seek it even if there was?’ and at this point in my life, it appealed to me to just finish this job.”

When Heng first ran for Congress in 2018, she said constituents made it clear that water, immigration and education were among the biggest issues facing the valley.

“We’re still talking about the same issues. They’re just much, much worse,” said Heng, 37. “We need the next generation to step up, speak out and fight for our future.”

Heng has raised more money than any other candidate, collecting $214,900 through March 16, according to the FEC. Eric Garcia, a Democrat from Clovis and a former Marine, was second, with $205,715.

Garcia, 34, said he always intended to run against Nunes, and his resignation didn’t change his plan.

“I went forward with it so I could finally give our district, before it disappears the way it is now, actual representation as opposed to the lack thereof when Devin was in the seat for over 10-plus years,” he said.

Other candidates on the ballot are Republican business owners Michael Maher, 38, and Matt Stoll, 44, and Democratic water resource manager Lourin Hubbard, 33.

Why is this an unusual election?

That’s because the 22nd Congressional District, as currently constituted, will no longer exist after this year.

Under new district maps, Nunes’ Republican voter base got pushed into surrounding districts. Nearly half of Nunes’ district was combined with about half of Costa’s district to create the new 21st Congressional District. Costa, a Fresno native, is running for reelection in this district.

A small part of Nunes’ district was placed into the new 22nd District, which encompasses a big chunk of Kern County and portions of Tulare and Kings counties. Incumbent Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) announced his run for reelection in this district.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia vie for a newly drawn congressional district seat.

What happens next?

Voters can mail in their ballots or show up in person at voting centers on April 5.

If a candidate doesn’t win a majority of votes, the top two candidates will move onto the June 7 election, the same day as statewide primary elections. This means candidates who run to fill Nunes’ seat could also find themselves campaigning for another congressional district simultaneously.

Maher, Stoll and Garcia have all been certified to run against Costa in the new 21st District, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“Talk about a confusing ballot,” Conway said. “It would be my hope that it’s cut and dry on April 5, but it’s a big ask with six candidates.”

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.


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