The signs vie for space with political campaign placards at intersections along State Route 43 as a constant reminder to Central Valley residents. “No water, no jobs.”
Trees along the roadside are yellowed and shrunken. In the distance a tractor creates a cloud of dust as it makes its way across a field.
“Water=Jobs,” reads one billboard. “Tell Feinstein to pass [the] water bill,” reads another.
The region’s congressman is among the most vulnerable incumbents in California. But unlike other parts of the state, where Republicans are suffering thanks to Donald Trump’s place at the top of the ticket on Nov. 8, Rep. David Valadao renounced Trump early and has been able to keep his reelection campaign local.
In California’s Central Valley, the nation’s most productive agricultural region, the drought drives everything. And the ongoing fight over how much water flows could be the reason Democrats haven’t been able to win in the 21st Congressional District with a national race.
On paper, Valadao’s seat looks like an easy play for Democrats trying to win back control of the House: 47% of registered voters are Democrats, 30% are Republican. Latinos make up nearly 75% of the population and 57% of registered voters in the district, one of California’s largest, stretching from which covers a vast stretch of the Central Valley from Bakersfield north into Kettleman City and Wood Ranch.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has tried for years to flip the 21st, but Republicans have held it since it was created in 2012. (Before redistricting, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa represented much of the area.)
As Valadao was first elected in 2012 with 57.8% of the vote over a Latino businessman, President Obama topped Mitt Romney here 55% to 44%. In 2008, with different district boundaries, Obama won with 51.5%.
This time around, Democrats see hope in attorney Emilio Huerta, the son of labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. But Valadao is still, at this point, favored to win.
“No matter what I do, what event I do, if it’s a tele-town hall, if it’s a door-knock, doesn’t matter where I’m at, water is the first thing you hear about,” Valadao said in an interview from his campaign office here. “A basic thing like water shouldn’t be the No. 1 issue, but because of the situation that we face here it obviously is.”
California’s often scarce water supply has pitted a wide array of powerful forces —big cities, the agriculture industry and conservationists — against one another. Nowhere in the state is that quite as visible as in the Central Valley.
In Terra Bella and Porterville, fresh drinking water is brought in by trucks, and residents use community showers. Hardwick and other towns were out of water for a while, and water flowed from taps in East Porterville this August for the first time in three years.
Decades of state and national brawls over California water policy, and the feeling that the Central Valley has lost those fights as the drought continued, have led many local voters to one conclusion: blame Democrats, said Keith Smith, associate professor of political science at University of the Pacific.
“So many people’s work is tied to farming. They feel the water issue. The view is we’re just not allocating it where it ought to be allocated,” Smith said. If that’s what you see and hear from employers and neighbors, “you might begin to identify the Democratic Party as the problem.”