The Odds Are Slim to Nunes

House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) at CPAC in February 2018 (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Democrats dump millions into an effort to beat Devin Nunes in a reliably Republican district.

When the history of the 2018 midterms is written, there will be a chapter on missed opportunities for Democrats. Some may wonder if they should have spent so much money supporting Beto O’Rourke in Texas, or whether Heidi Heitkamp was doomed from the start in North Dakota. One painful question for progressives will be whether it was a good idea to spend millions trying to unseat House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Democrat Andrew Janz, a first-time candidate, raised $4.3 million in three months, a sum it calls “a staggering amount in a district that analysts had written off as a lock for Republicans.” Those analysts have a point. Nunes has never won less than 62 percent of the vote; he ran unopposed in 2010. His family’s roots in the farming community go back generations, and local farmers love him for his indefatigable fight for more water to be used for agriculture instead of preserving wetlands. In California’s “jungle primary” system, where the top two finishers advance, regardless of party, Nunes won 58 percent, and Janz won 32 percent.

Janz’s flood of donations arrives as a lot of other California Republican House members find themselves in choppy waters. Recent polling indicates that Democrat Josh Harder has a serious shot at unseating incumbent Representative Jeff Denham in California’s 10th Congressional District. In the 49th District, where Darrell Issa is retiring, Democrat Mike Levin enjoys a 55 percent to 41 percent advantage over Republican Diane Harkey, and Democrat Katie Porter leads GOP incumbent Mimi Walters in the 45th Congressional District.

In fact, of eight competitive California congressional races surveyed by Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, Nunes was in the best shape of any Republican, leading 53 percent to Janz’s 45 percent.

The question of why many Democrats are dumping money into this particular long-shot challenger is not a great mystery. Many Democrats fervently believe that Donald Trump did something sinister with the Russian government in the 2016 campaign. Nunes chairs the Intelligence Committee, has access to just about all of the relevant intelligence, and has publicly scoffed at the claims of collusion. He argues instead that there’s been stunning bias in favor of the Clintons and mismanagement at the top levels of the FBI. This outrages many Democrats, so they want to see him defeated, even though he ranks among the most electorally secure GOP members of Congress in the state.

At first, Janz wanted to make the race a referendum on Trump; last November he unveiled a billboard that depicts Trump and Nunes on Vladimir Putin’s leash. This may not be such a wise move; Trump won this district 52 percent to 42 percent in 2016, and the Berkeley poll found that 56 percent of likely voters in Nunes’s district approved of Trump’s job performance and 44 percent disapproved.

Back in May, the Janz campaign unveiled a video that accused Nunes of putting together a “brainwashing memo that picks and chooses its facts.” The ad even used audio of an unidentified news commentator asking, “Is it possible that Congressman Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been compromised by the Russians?”

Somewhere along the line, the Janz brain trust must have figured out that running on the theme of “our opponent could be a sleeper agent for Moscow” isn’t a winning message.

Janz’s current biographical ad is painfully cookie-cutter — “If a bunch of D.C. insiders come after me for putting my community first, I say bring it on” — and there’s almost nothing that hints that he’s a Democrat. He talks about “putting bad guys in jail,” immigrants’ pride in their community, “not letting them take Social Security and Medicare,” and securing water for the Central Valley. Another focuses on “putting violent gang members behind bars,” the kind of message that is dismissed as xenophobic hysteria when a Virginia Republican runs on this theme. The word “Democrat” does not appear in Janz’s ads.

Facing such an uphill climb, Nunes critics celebrate various developments as key indicators of an upset in the making. The Fresno Bee, which Nunes has been fighting with for the past two years, didn’t endorse Nunes for the first time in his career. Janz supporters say Nunes supporters are stealing their lawn signs! The band Cake is coming to town to campaign for Janz!

But newspaper endorsements and concert rallies won’t change the fundamentals of the congressional race, most notably that this is one of the few conservative, Republican-leaning districts in California: Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 32,000. Despite the most heavily covered and hard-fought race in Nunes’s career, there’s been a marginal increase in the number of registered voters. Nunes is well-known and well-liked, and he has all the advantages of incumbency.

Whatever else the midterms bring, the morning after Election Day, California Democrats may wake up with a hangover, look at the millions spent against Nunes that could have been used in more competitive races elsewhere, and ask … “What were we thinking?”