He received no national-party funding, ran what he calls an “old school” campaign without data-driven analytics, and had only one paid staffer, at $500 per month, but this third-generation dairy farmer from California may just pull out the biggest upset of the 2014 cycle.
As of publication time, Republican Johnny Tacherra is leading longtime Democratic lawmaker Jim Costa in the race for the Golden State’s 16th congressional district. With provisional ballots still to be counted, and with a 700-plus-vote cushion, Tacherra is confident that he will survive. In fact, he and his wife are heading to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to take part in freshmen-member orientation on Capitol Hill.
Thanks to his vigorous grass-roots campaign and the perception that Costa is increasingly disconnected from the drought-stricken district, Tacherra has surprised political observers from both parties, offering another sign of hope for Republicans in an already strong election cycle. He credits his tight focus on local issues, persistent outreach to traditionally Democratic constituencies, and tireless campaigning for his victory.
Tacherra’s decision to jump into the race came after a discouraging meeting with Representative Costa in his D.C. office, in which Costa rebuffed his and other farmers’ concerns about water shortages in the rural agricultural district. At that point, Tacherra says, he knew that Costa had lost touch back home.
“I left and said to myself that I’m going to run for Congress against this guy because he does not represent us, he’s not going to help us,” Tacherra tells National Review Online. Costa’s detachment only worsened, Tachera says, when he welcomed President Obama to the district for a speech on climate change earlier this year, signaling that he valued environmentalists’ priorities more than those of local farmers.
But the race wasn’t supposed to be close. Costa had won the seat by almost 15 points in 2012 and was expected to sail to reelection this cycle. The New York Times put the race on its “Democrats Are Expected to Win Easily” list, and the Cook Political Report labeled the seat “Solid Democrat,” or uncompetitive. Republican national committees and organizations stayed out of the race, putting Tacherra at a nearly four-to-one cash disadvantage. A look through Tacherra’s donor list reveals mainly local ranches, farms, and creameries.
Tacherra didn’t let the uphill fight faze him. With limited resources, he capitalized on his strengths, says California-based Republican consultant Carl Fogliani: a personal understanding of local issues and his likeable personality. He realized that the best way to get the word out and win over voters was to interact with as many people as possible across the district.
No event was too small. “I was stopping by family picnics in the park, neighborhood barbecues,” Tacherra says. Eventually, he began showing up at Democrat-friendly events, such as labor-union meetings — much to Costa’s irritation when the two ran into each other at one.
“He told me it was like him showing up at tea-party events,” Tacherra recalls. “I told him he’s more than welcome to go to those.”
His outreach yielded results in the final weeks of the campaign as attendees — and previous Costa voters — started approaching him to voice their support. He won them over by explaining how Costa’s and the Democrats’ policies have led to the Central Valley’s high unemployment rate and water shortages. In a Hispanic-majority district, where immigration could be a snag for a Republican, he was able to communicate why border security is key to solving the issue of immigrants in the country illegally, and that amnesty would cause more problems than it would fix.
“We had a candidate who worked like a dog and went after Democratic votes,” says Fogliani. “[Costa] thought he could give [voters] the lip service of the past, and that they would always buy it, but they didn’t.”
Tacherra expects to know the final tally of the race by the end of the day on Wednesday, when he’s in Washington for orientation. If it all holds, he can start making himself comfortable in his congressional office — although you can expect him to handle business differently than his predecessor did.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.