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Fundraising Phenom Attracts Attention In Calif. Race


In campaigns for congress, the incumbent almost always has the upper hand. But we're about to meet a young Republican in California who's trying to defy that rule. The combination of redistricting and a young challenger with impressive fundraising skills has turned a race that shouldn't be competitive into a toss-up. NPR's Tamara Keith has this story from California's Central Valley.


RICKY GILL: The people of this district have not seen a Republican like me on the ballot in quite some time, if at all.

KEITH: Gill is 25 years old, barely old enough to run for Congress. He's Indian-American, speaks Spanish, and just graduated from law school at UC Berkeley. So far this election cycle, he's raised nearly $1.4 million, which puts him in the top 2 percent of challengers running for House seats. It also puts him ahead of the incumbent he's challenging, Democrat Jerry McNerney.

REPRESENTATIVE JERRY MCNERNEY: It certainly makes him into a viable candidate, regardless of his experience or background.

KEITH: McNerney is 60 years old and has been in congress since knocking out an incumbent Republican in 2006.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, if Congressman McNerney will come up and do the honors.

KEITH: This ribbon cutting at a Stockton non-profit that provides housing to homeless veterans, is pretty standard for members of Congress. But this one is special to McNerney, because he's been working on this project for years.

MCNERNEY: So much has gone into this, so much heartache and pain and yet, go up and see the rooms, you'll see what a great facility it is.

KEITH: In the redistricting process, McNerney's district shifted out from under him. He used to represent a mix of San Francisco Bay Area suburbs and Central Valley. The new district is entirely in the agriculture-dominated valley and includes cities hard hit by unemployment and foreclosures.

MCNERNEY: I've got about 300,000 new people in my district that I have to introduce myself to. Some of them are close enough to my current district that they probably have heard of me a little bit, but there's another two or three cities that are completely new to me, so it's going to be a lot of work.

KEITH: And while McNerney has a lot of introductions to make, the new district is also quite a bit more Democratic than his last one. In 2008, it went strongly in favor of President Obama, but that doesn't deter Gill.

GILL: Our polling suggests that people want a new direction. This is clearly a wrong-track district. Things have failed here and there's not a lot of happiness with the political process, and that's a burden my opponent's going to have to face in the general election.

KEITH: There's a primary on Tuesday and another Republican in the mix. But with Gill's strong fundraising totals, almost everyone expects Gill and McNerney to face off in a tough fight all the way to November.

GILL: Hey, good to see you. Your name?

KEITH: At a recent pancake breakfast in the city of Lodi, Gill re-introduces himself to a supporter.

GILL: I hope you get it.

Thank you. Well, we need a local guy in there, right? Someone from the valley?

KEITH: Gill grew up in Lodi where his parents were both physicians. His dad has since retired from medicine and focuses on the family's other businesses, which include a thousand acres of cherries and wine grapes and an RV park. On the ballot, Gill is listed as a small businessman and farmer, though he's spent virtually his entire adult life in college and law school. When asked about this, he talks about his experience with the family business.

GILL: You know, in my role as a director, we do everything from help out with the harvest to make sure we have contracts with a variety of wineries for our grapes, and it's a constant business.

KEITH: Gill sees his youth as an asset, making him uniquely affected by issues like the growing national debt. At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jesse Fergusson is cheering Gill's youth and relative lack of professional experience.

JESSE FERGUSSON: Ricky Gill reminds me of the 24 year old who inflates his resume to get an internship. But this time it's not internship, he's trying to run for Congress.

KEITH: That's not what national Republicans see. Gill has held fundraisers with Nikki Hayley and Jeb Bush, among others, and was recently named to the National Republican Congressional Committee's elite Young Guns program. The NRCC's Andrea Bozek describes him as a rising star.

ANDREA BOZEK: It sort of signals that these are the top races that we feel we have a great opportunity to put in the Republican column.

KEITH: And Gill seems perfectly comfortable in this role.

GILL: You know, I represent a demographic that I think the Republican Party needs to cultivate: younger people; I have an Asian American background, an immigrant story in my family and I'm from the Central Valley, which has just been a neglected region.

KEITH: Tuesday's election, which is an open primary, will be the first test of whether Gill's narrative resonates with voters in this district that leans heavily Democratic, and whether McNerney has a real challenge on his hands. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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