Costa facing another Republican upstart in new Congress district

jellis@fresnobee.comSeptember 26, 2012 

— About this time two years ago, incumbent Democrat Jim Costa's relatively unknown Republican opponent came out of nowhere and turned a sleepy congressional race into a down-to-the-wire barn burner.

Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak fell short in his upset bid -- but just barely.

Now, Fresno attorney Brian Whelan, Costa's Republican opponent this time around, says history is poised to repeat itself, only with a better ending.

"You're going to see a similar wave of support coming late in the game," he said of his campaign. "It's on the way." But a lot has changed since 2010, and it is widely believed that Costa is in a stronger position as he seeks his fifth term in Congress.

"The tea leaves just aren't lined up for (Whelan)," said Joel Nelsen, a Republican and president of the Exeter-based trade group California Citrus Mutual.

In a sign of the challenge Whelan faces, last month the Rothenberg Political Report -- a nonpartisan newsletter covering gubernatorial and federal campaigns -- took the Costa-Whelan race off its watch list.

Costa's biggest advantage may be redistricting.

His old 20th Congressional District ran from central Fresno south and included parts of Fresno and Kern counties and all of Kings County. He is keeping 23 percent of that old district -- mostly the heavily Democratic parts of Fresno that have long supported him -- in a new 16th District that includes about half the city of Fresno and runs north, taking in part of Madera County and all of Merced County.

The heavily rural parts of Fresno and Kings counties where Costa had largely worn out his welcome -- the ABC (Anyone But Costa) signs there remain tacked to poles alongside country roads -- are gone.

Secondly, voter registration in the district is 47 percent Democrat to 32 percent Republican.

And several prominent locals in the business and agriculture fields say Costa has stepped it up politically after his close call.

"I think Jim, in the past year, really put things together, put his issues on paper and said, 'I'm going to focus on these,' " said Republican Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League.

Whelan faces challenges that Vidak didn't.

For starters, their backgrounds are very different: Whelan is an attorney from urban Fresno; Vidak was a rural Kings County farmer, and that played well in the old 20th District.

Nelsen called Whelan a "nice young man, and he probably has a future, but I don't think anybody sees him as a viable candidate both from substance perspective and from the (voter) registration."

The national Republican Party has yet to promote Whelan to a level where he qualifies for money. Two years ago, Vidak used that springboard to tap into "Super PACs," which have become such an important part of the political process.

Michael Der Manouel Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County and a Whelan supporter, said it is time for the National Republican Congressional Committee to move Whelan from "contender" to the top level of its "Young Guns" program.

"He's earned the support of the NRCC, in my opinion," Der Manouel said. "I'm a little frustrated that they have not done more to recognize his efforts."

Costa has faced his share of criticism from agribusiness, which dominates his old district and the one that he now hopes to represent. Prominent supporters such as area businessman and farmer Bob Smittcamp jumped to Vidak two years ago after supporting Costa for several years.

Whelan touts his opposition to high-speed rail when he campaigns. Many in the ag community are opposed to HSR, too. Costa is a supporter.

Costa has worked to repair some of the damage. Smittcamp, for one, has again contributed to his campaign.

"Jim has shored up his support somewhat," California Citrus Mutual's Nelsen said. "But I just don't think people see an alternative in this particular race."

The most recent campaign finance reports show that Costa has raised more than $920,000 as of June 30 -- an amount he said has now surpassed $1 million, with another half-dozen fundraisers scheduled in the next few weeks.

Whelan raised close to $300,000 by June 30. Campaign spokesman Lionel Largaespada said Whelan's fundraising won't match Costa's, but it will be enough to "fund a very competitive campaign."


Jim Costa

AGE: 60


OCCUPATION: Congressman, farmer

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, political science, Fresno State

FAMILY: Single

PARTY: Democrat



Twitter: @RepJimCosta

Brian Whelan

AGE: 28


OCCUPATION: Farmer, attorney

EDUCATION: University of California at Berkeley, Rutgers University Law School

FAMILY: No information provided

PARTY: Republican



Twitter: @BrianDWhelan

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