Two rising stars in California's Central Valley are set to face off in an open district next year, as the parties battle for one of a handful of the state's newly competitive districts.
Redistricting and likely retirements have provided new opportunities for the next generation of politicians in the state, and nowhere is that more evident than the redrawn 21st district, which stretches from Bakersfield to Fresno.
State Sen. Michael Rubio (D) and state Assemblyman David Valadao (R) were born four months apart in 1977 and elected to the state Legislature for the first time in 2010. Now one of the two lifelong Central Valley residents is likely to head to Capitol Hill next year and lead the way for the forthcoming turnover in the state's aging delegation.
Rubio has signed up Richie Ross, one of the top Democratic consultants in the state, and California Democrats see big things for the telegenic and independent-minded Democrat.
"I presume he gets elected, and when he does, he's going to be an interesting force in D.C." Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell said. "I think he'll be our youngest, best-looking, most dynamic, most politically aggressive, most politically astute Member of Congress. If you look at how many of our current delegation are in their 70s and 80s, this guy's going to stand out."
(In fact, 15 of the 55-member California delegation fall into that category this year.)
In an interview, Rubio noted that he worked with four Republicans during his half-decade on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, a post that California insiders said was even more prominent than his current role in the state Legislature.
"When you look at our records, you will not find a more independent, moderate voice in the Legislature or local government than mine," Rubio said.
Rubio is waiting until the legislative year closes out to officially announce his candidacy, but he's filed as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission and visited Capitol Hill last month with his wife. Showing him around campus was Rep. Jim Costa (D), who currently represents much of the redrawn 21st district but will run in the new 16th district, where he lives, next year.
Costa's move predicates the likely retirement of Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D), Costa's good friend who also lives in the 16th, which was drawn more favorably for Democrats than the 21st.
"Dennis and I are good friends, we're political allies, we go back a long ways," Costa said in an interview Thursday just off the House floor, where he'd been sitting next to Cardoza and a few other Blue Dog Democrats during a series of votes.
Costa won by just 4 points last year despite outspending his opponent by nearly $1 million, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has put the 16th and 21st districts atop its California target list as it seeks to stem the number of seats it stands to lose because of redistricting.
The Central Valley is a good place to start. A Field poll conducted last month found President Barack Obama with a 35 percent job approval rating there, and Valadao, a partner at the dairy farm his family has owned since 1974, said in an interview that the president and Democrats' representation of the area in recent years will be a boon for his campaign.
"The district in the last election showed us that the Central Valley is fed up with the other party," Valadao said. "They've been represented by them for the last 10, 20 years, and we're worse off than we've ever been."
Valadao won a Democratic-leaning Assembly district last year by 21 points, defeating a Democrat with a well-known name: Fran Florez, a former Shafter City Councilor and mother of state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez. Dean Florez coincidentally was Rubio's mentor and was reportedly also considering running in the 21st, though no Democrat who spoke with Roll Call believed he would actually run.
Johnny Amaral, the longtime chief of staff to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), recruited Valadao (who also is his cousin) to run in that race. After Valadao's big win in an Assembly district with a double-digit Democratic voter registration advantage, Amaral said Valadao now represents roughly two-thirds of a Congressional district that no Democratic incumbent wanted to run in.
"David's very popular, very well-liked, and he's working hard," Amaral said. "And we think he's going to be very well-positioned to win that seat and hold it."
Neither candidate has had a full three months of fundraising, but both said the third-quarter reports they file with the FEC this week will put them in a good position at the outset of the campaign. The new 21st is one of the biggest swing districts in the state — had it been in place the past two cycles, Obama would have won 51 percent in 2008, and in 2010, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) would have won by 4 points and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) would have lost by 10 points.
"This is the district Costa thought he might lose a year ago, and it's changed but not really changed a lot," said Mitchell, a redistricting expert. "But in talking to people that are even on the Republican side, they feel that Rubio is a tough candidate to beat."