Voters in California’s sprawling farm belt on Tuesday will fill a congressional seat left vacant after Republican Rep. Devin Nunes resigned mid-term to run former President Donald Trump’s fledgling media venture.
The special election in the Republican-leaning 22nd district has been largely ignored as national Democrats and Republicans are fixated on midterm elections that will determine control of Congress in 2023.
The seat in the state’s Central Valley — sometimes referred to as the nation’s salad bowl because of its agricultural output — is expected to remain in Republican hands.
Nunes’ unexpected departure in January created an unusual situation for his former constituents: the winner of the election will be in Congress for just a few months, and the district will disappear next year due to redrawing of borders.
Postal voting began last month and early feedback indicates low turnout. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic dominating the headlines, campaigners say voters who contact them are sometimes surprised to learn an election is taking place, or unaware that Nunes, a prominent Trump loyalist, is during he was in Congress has resigned.
If no candidate receives a majority, a runoff between the top two places will coincide with the June 7 state primary.
There are six candidates on the ballot—four Republicans and two Democrats. In a possible runoff, there is a chance that two Republicans will compete for the seat in June.
“Anything is possible at this point,” said Connie Conway, a former district leader, Republican leader in the state assembly and appointee of the Trump administration, who is the most prominent candidate among the contenders.
Nunes, 48, was easily re-elected in November 2020 before stepping down a year before his term expired to join Trump Media & Technology Group. The company hopes its social media platform will take on rivals like Twitter and Facebook, which suspended the former president’s accounts after the deadly storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
Other candidates include Republican Elizabeth Heng, a tech executive who lost a congressional bid in a neighboring district in 2018 and briefly ran for the US Senate; Michael Maher, a Navy veteran and former FBI special agent; and former Navy fighter pilot Matt Stoll, a small business owner.
Democrats on the ballot are Eric Garcia, a Navy and Iraq War veteran, and Lourin Hubbard, a State Department water resources executive.
There are different agendas at play. Conway, if elected, plans to serve only the remainder of Nunes’ term. However, Garcia, Maher and Stoll are also running in the June statewide primary in a newly drawn district — the 21st — that includes a slab of Nunes’ territory. They will take on Democrat Jim Costa in this race and it’s obvious they’re hoping a win on Nunes’ old turf will be a stepping stone to winning the district.
A runoff would be politically sensitive for Garcia, Maher or Stoll. In that case, a candidate’s name would appear twice on the June ballot — once in a runoff for the vacant Nunes seat and a second time in a new House district for the term beginning in 2023. Voters could easily get confused when they see the same name twice.
With little at stake in the competition to replace Nunes, money has been tight and as a result promotion has been sporadic.
Federal fundraising records, for example, show that Garcia raised over $200,000 but only had $1,700 in the bank as of mid-March. Heng raised $215,000 and had about $60,000 to spend at the time. But she’s also amassed $95,000 in unpaid bills, effectively leaving her campaign in debt.
Nor will the result change the balance of power on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold a slim majority.
The little-noticed competition takes place in a challenging political environment for congressional Democrats. Polls show many Americans are unhappy with the country’s direction, and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted.
While the nationwide contest for the vacant Nunes seat was an afterthought, California is at the heart of the House struggle. There are about half a dozen hard-fought districts in the June election. Such contests are a rarity in the liberal-minded state, where Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate the legislature and hold a 42-10 advantage in the congressional delegation.
Statewide, 30 House Democrats and 15 Republicans are not seeking re-election this year. There are also 5 vacancies due to layoffs or deaths.