FRESNO, Calif. — Fighting to retake his blue-leaning seat two years ago, Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.) had to ward off accusations he was a “yes man” for former president Donald Trump. In ads, the Republican touted his role in a bill signed by another ex-president: Barack Obama.
But this year, running in an even bluer district that is seen as one of the election cycle’s most competitive, Valadao is doing little to communicate one defining show of political independence — his vote to impeach Trump.
“There’s actually no point in talking about it, because so many people know about it,” the dairy farmer said in a recent interview here in the Central Valley, adding that he’s focused on local issues.
He declined to say whether he would support Trump in 2024 if he is the Republican presidential nominee — “haven’t thought that far out,” said the congressman, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year for inciting a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol with false claims of a stolen election. Only two are now vying to serve another term, after Trump-backed challengers defeated four in Republican primaries and four more opted not to run for reelection.
Several months after narrowly defeating a primary challenge from the right and a Democratic effort to damage him with GOP voters, Valadao is still fighting for his political life in a newly drawn district that favored President Biden by 13 percentage points. Facing lingering resistance from some Trump loyalists — and with one Democratic group still trying to use the impeachment vote against him — Valadao is betting that frustrated voters across the political spectrum here are more interested in his pitch on gas prices and water shortages than his stance on the former president’s unsuccessful efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Trump never endorsed a challenger to Valadao, who is close to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and whom many Republicans viewed as their best candidate to hang onto a tough seat. Now Valadao faces a far more competitive reelection fight than the only other House Republican who voted to impeach Trump still on the ballot, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.).
Valadao’s Democratic opponent is Rudy Salas, who would be the Central Valley’s first Latino representative in the House. Salas, like Valadao, has also campaigned heavily on economic issues and highlights his background working grape fields with his father.
From Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Republican officeholders who crossed Trump and survived the former president’s efforts to oust them did so by seeking to turn the page and orienting their campaign toward different issues. Valadao is following this blueprint in his general election campaign.
The congressman focused on pocketbook issues when he recently appeared with former vice president Mike Pence — who has drawn a backlash from Trump and his allies over his refusal to overturn Trump’s defeat.
“There’s always going to be people that are mad,” he said last week alongside Pence, who had joined him for a fundraiser in Fresno. But “look at what it costs to put gas in their tank … I just don’t envision them holding on until November 8.”
Pence sidestepped a question about whether Valadao was right to impeach Trump, saying “elections are about the future” and pivoting quickly to gas prices. Pence’s relationship with Trump ruptured as he certified the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021, despite intense pressure from the former president and the interruption of a violent pro-Trump mob. But he has avoided overt criticism.
One of the Republican holdouts in Valadao’s race is Darrell Evans, a retired utility worker who said the rising cost of living is the biggest issue on his mind. He noted that Trump endorsed Valadao in 2020 and said the congressman “stabbed him in the back.”
Asked if he would vote for Valadao over the Democratic candidate, Evans paused and didn’t commit to anything.
“That’ll be tough,” he said, arms folded across his chest.
Democratic ads assail Valadao as an extremist on abortion; he’s a co-sponsor on a federal bill that would ban the procedure at any stage of pregnancy, without exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Ads from House Majority PAC, the group aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attack Valadao on both abortion and his vote this year against a proposal to cap the price of insulin.
Another pro-Democratic group spending against Valadao, the Voter Protection Project, is highlighting his impeachment vote in an apparent bid to turn off GOP voters. A website bearing the group’s name calls the congressman a “traitor” to Trump and urges conservatives to “say no” on Nov. 8. VPP, which did not respond to requests for comment, has spent hundreds of thousands against Valadao since mid-October, according to a ProPublica database of expenditures. Their efforts were first reported by Axios.
It’s an echo of Democrats’ tactics from the all-party primary, when House Majority PAC spent about $200,000 publicizing the impeachment vote in a bid to help a GOP candidate considered easier to beat, Chris Mathys. Campaigning on opposition to Valadao’s vote against Trump, Mathys came within 2 points of advancing over Valadao. Similar efforts in Michigan’s primary helped a Trump-backed challenger unseat another one of the Republicans who voted for impeachment, Rep. Peter Meijer.
House Majority PAC contributed $100,000 to VPP on Oct. 19, according to Federal Election Commission data. Asked if the money was for VPP’s ads against Valadao, a spokesman for House Majority PAC declined to comment.
Democrats’ prospects could hinge largely on their ability to motivate their voters amid economic struggles, strategists said, in a rural, working-class farming region where poor voter turnout has hurt them before. In interviews, many said they felt disconnected from politics and rarely voted or didn’t plan to do so this year.
Julia Vargas, 49, said she usually supports Democrats but finds it hard to like either party right now. Her family has sold a car, a laptop and cellphones to pay the bills as her son battles cancer, she said, and she wonders why there hasn’t been more government help. Inflation has squeezed them further, she said at a Walmart Supercenter where she’d been checking out a display for $2.98 tank tops.
“We’re run by Democrats in this state, and they didn’t show up for me — so it’s hard for me to show up,” Vargas said.
In a statement, Salas said that “Central Valley families are struggling” and that Valadao had voted against their interests on issues ranging from insulin costs to school funding.
First elected to Congress in 2012, Valadao has always faced a steep voter registration advantage for Democrats. Political observers have credited Valadao’s victories to his focus on local problems, his work across the aisle on issues such as immigration and his Spanish-language skills and outreach in a majority-Latino community (his family is from Portugal). He lost his Central Valley seat narrowly in 2018 but won it back in 2020, even as Biden won the area by 11 points in 2020.
Asked if Congress would be a lonelier place for Trump critics next year, Valadao echoed Pence and said he and his colleagues would “focus on the future.”
“That’s what we hope the voters do as well,” he said.
Greg Dominguez, a conservative voter who supports Valadao, said he was impressed when the congressman took a stand against Trump. “At times,” Dominguez, 52, said, “I wanted to impeach Trump myself.” But mostly he praised Valadao as someone who “helped with water” and has supported the agriculture industry.
Worried about water and inflation, undecided voter Martin Zubia said he just wanted someone who would “do what they say they’re going to do.” He hadn’t heard anything about the impeachment vote — “for the last couple of years, I don’t even watch news,” he said.