In the battle to replace retiring Rep. George Radanovich, few endorsements are more sought after than those from the San Joaquin Valley's influential agricultural community.
To date, the region's farmers and ranchers are fractured in their support, with the fault line running right down the valley's center.
Most of former Congressman Richard Pombo's agricultural support is coming from the valley's west side, particularly in the Westlands Water District.
State Sen. Jeff Denham and former Mayor Jim Patterson are finding a majority of their support from east side agriculture. Fresno City Council President Larry Westerlund is meeting with farmers and agricultural organizations and hopes to gain their support over the next few weeks.
"What is shaping up here is a nasty primary pitting a candidate supported by west side farmers vs. candidates supported by east side farmers," said Tom Holyoke, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fresno.
All four are seeking the Republican nomination. The district leans Republican, and the winner of the primary is widely expected to defeat the Democratic opponent in November.
Divisions between east side and west side agriculture are nothing new, and they mistrust one another over water. At one point, there was open feuding between the two after Westlands, which gets water primarily from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, filed a petition to take water from the San Joaquin River, the east side's primary water source.
Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a trade group that has not endorsed any candidate, said it is vital for "the ag community, as much as possible, to get on the same page."
He noted that the valley will experience a huge political upheaval this year with several elected officials who had considerable seniority leaving office at the state and federal levels.
River health vs. irrigation
In the 19th Congressional District, getting on the same page is unlikely. Much of the east-west division in endorsements is focused on water.
Prominent Madera County farmer Kole Upton is supporting Patterson because his "first act in office" would be to initiate a plan to revise an agreement between farmers, environmentalists and the federal government to restore the San Joaquin River and its long-dead salmon run.
Upton, a director with the Chowchilla Water District, initially supported the agreement but now opposes it because, he said, the government, environmentalists and some of his allies reneged on the initial compromise.
"It is an east side issue that is going to kill us," Upton said. "The other guys on the west side don't even know or care about it."
Those on the west side are concerned about dwindling deliveries of delta water, which they trace to environmental decisions dealing primarily with the delta smelt. The decisions are tied to the federal Endangered Species Act.
Pombo, they say, is best equipped to fight that battle because he would return to Congress with full seniority. Patterson or Denham, by comparison, would enter as a freshman who would have little clout or experience with Washington politics.
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, which has not endorsed any candidate, said there is a sense of urgency on the west side that isn't felt by east side agriculture.
He said the east side knows the agricultural water supply is at risk, but the threat is not immediate. On the west side, "it is not theoretical. It is happening."
Fresno businesswoman and west side grower Octavia Diener, who has endorsed Pombo, said the water crisis has "hit us, and it hasn't hit everybody else." That explains Pombo's appeal to the west side: water, his seniority and his efforts to reform the Endangered Species Act.
Holyoke agreed: "They know Pombo. They know he's a friend. They know he's a fierce opponent of the Endangered Species Act."
Before Pombo announced his candidacy, more than 50 people signed a letter asking him to run. Almost all of the names were west side farmers and ranchers.
One notable exception was businessman and east side farmer Bob Smittcamp, who is scheduled to host a fund-raiser for Pombo on Monday at his north Fresno home. Another exception is prominent west side rancher John Harris, who has endorsed Denham.
Harris acknowledged that many on the west side "value Pombo's seniority potential. I also like Richard and appreciate that factor, but feel that Jeff Denham is even a stronger candidate, and seniority may be overrated."
Former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a west side farmer who represented the east side in the state Assembly, thinks an endorsement "basically gets down to a name ID campaign." Jones, who has not endorsed anyone, said Patterson is well known in Fresno and the southern parts of the district, while Denham and Pombo are stronger in the north. Their support bases reflect that.
The 19th Congressional District runs from Fresno, north through Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties to the eastern reaches of Modesto and Stanislaus County. Its two main population centers are Fresno County, with 37 percent of the district's voters, and Stanislaus County, with roughly 35 percent.
Many in the ag community say that no matter how the race ends, growers must unify behind the winner.
Said Selma farmer Carol Chandler, "We're all in this together."