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A Challenging House Race In California's Heartland


Out here in California, meanwhile, some House races are drawing national attention. Among them, the battle for the 10th Congressional District in the state's agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley.

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, the incumbent is facing a growing challenge from a political newcomer with an intriguing background.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: If you want to go into politics, you need to get noticed. And one of the things that gets you noticed is a compelling personal story.


BATES: Democrat Jose Hernandez is a perfect example. Born in California to migrant farm worker parents, he picked produce alongside them after school and on weekends. He changed schools a lot, and wasn't fully fluent in English until he was 12. But he liked math and science, eventually got two degrees in engineering and was chosen to be on the Space Shuttle Discovery.

His big concerns, he says, are jobs and education; which is how educator Mick Founts introduced Hernandez when he hosted a meetup so his neighbors could see the candidate up close.

MICK FOUNTS: He went to our schools. And when he moved on as an astronaut, he came back to our school. And I think that says a lot.

BATES: Hernandez readily admits he's not an experienced politician. But he told his audience, he's a quick learner.

: It isn't rocket science. I think I can figure it out. And if it was, I got you covered so don't worry about it.


BATES: The Republican incumbent is freshman Congressman Jeff Denham. He didn't respond to several requests for interviews, but his campaign ads emphasize Denham's years in the state senate and his understanding of his district's wants and needs.


BATES: Other ads focus on service to vets and a promise to rein in government spending, which Denham says is out of control. He's often voted in sync with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

The 10th District was created when the state redrew its district lines last year, and the Denham-Hernandez race hasn't gone unnoticed. Nathan Monroe is a professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, and he's not surprised at the heat the race in the 10th is generating.

NATHAN MONROE: In a time when there's such strong partisan differences, I think that any race where there is a real competitive fight between the Republican and Democratic candidate is going to draw national attention.

BATES: This fight is drawing a lot of outside money. Both parties have sunk hundreds of thousands into supporting their candidates. The Chamber of Commerce and several Republican political action committees have funded ads for Jeff Denham's campaign, like this one, that scoffs at Hernandez's support for a controversial high-speed rail system.


BATES: The Democrats have spent money on star power appearances, as well as ads. Bill Clinton recently flew into the area to stump for local candidates, including the 10th District challenger.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: And then you have Jose Hernandez.


BATES: The former president mangled Hernandez's name a little, but spent a lot of time outlining his resume for the enthusiastic crowd, emphasizing Hernandez's work in technology and science.

Denham started out the clear leader, according to political analysts, but now the race has narrowed to a toss-up. One factor is the new district's demographics, which show eligible Latino voters on the rise.

Mark Hugo Lopez is associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, which does nonpartisan research. Lopez says Latino voters have increased, in the state and overall, but higher Latino numbers don't automatically translate into more elected Latino officials. He says some recent Latino victories have come from a diverse supporter base.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: If you take a look, for example, at 2010, there were some Latinos that were elected in places that don't necessarily have a large number of Latino eligible voters.

BATES: And it's factors like new voters and outside money that will likely determine who will represent the 10th District in Washington.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.

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