Richard Pombo's decision to run for Congress undercut what appeared to be a coronation for state Sen. Jeff Denham in late December.
Denham got in the race for the 19th Congressional District with the backing of the retiring incumbent, George Radanovich. He was a proven fund-raiser who had been elected twice by people in portions of the district, which includes parts of Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, Stani- slaus and Tuolumne counties.
But Pombo, a former congressman from Tracy ousted when Democrats took the House in 2006, had name recognition and the capacity to raise even more cash than Denham to get out his message.
Tongues started wagging on both sides of the aisle about how much other San Joaquin Valley lawmakers liked working with Pombo. Denham didn't exactly look like roadkill, but the momentum seemed to be with Pombo.
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Denham began kicking back more forcefully last week. A supporter sent the results of a push poll to the conservative Web site Flash Report showing that respondents like Pombo less when they learn that he received contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and was reimbursed with taxpayer dollars for visits to national parks he conducted in 2003 with his family.
Hint, hint: That's ammunition if the campaign goes negative.
(As for the park visits: Pombo chaired the House Natural Resources Committee, which influences national parks policies. He called the visits research.)
Neither man lives in the 19th District (residency is not required), but Denham's Senate district includes parts of Stanislaus and Madera counties. He's been on the ground and has a slate of endorsements from local government leaders in those areas.
The other significant portion of the district where Denham lacks a presence is in Fresno County. However, former Fresno Mayor Richard Patterson and current Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund also are seeking the GOP nomination in June. They could split Fresno votes, leaving Denham and Pombo to scuffle over the rest.
KURT KICKS OFF: Former Turlock City Councilman Kurt Vander Weide trumpeted his entry into the race for an Assembly seat last week, unveiling an endorsement from one of the district's former representatives, George House.
Vander Weide's serious about this run and is putting some of his own money into the five-way race for the Republican nomination for the 25th District.
Jason Roe, a consultant advising Vander Weide, said the candidate has more than $60,000 to begin the race.
Candidates across the board are reporting that it's difficult to raise money this year. Former Modesto City Councilwoman Janice Keating said she has $20,000 in cash and commitments so far for the Assembly race; Modesto Councilwoman Kristin Olsen is budgeting $200,000 for the race and said she's on pace to hit her target.
Vander Weide had to move for the campaign because his Turlock home is not in the district. Vander Weide recently filed to run at the Stanislaus County clerk's office, where he wrote that he is living in Mariposa County.
He faces a tough race given that each of his opponents has been elected by voters in the district to local government offices in Modesto, Riverbank and Tuolumne County. Vander Weide was just outside the line.
But Roe said having a voting record in the district isn't necessarily an advantage this year.
"He gets to come up at this with a fresh start as a candidate," Roe said. "I don't think this is a political environment that is rewarding incumbency of any kind."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.