WASHINGTON — State Sen. Jeff Denham's victory Tuesday in a congressional primary left a bad taste in the mouth of at least one potential Republican colleague.
Even as Denham was taking a victory lap after winning the 19th Congressional District primary, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said allegations of "serious illegalities" in Denham's campaign needed to be addressed. Until they are, Nunes said, he won't support his fellow Republican.
"I'm really concerned," Nunes said in an interview Wednesday. "There are (allegations of) serious illegalities that have to be answered."
Nunes specifically cited Denham's sending $175,000 in state campaign funds to a veterans charity, which aired pre-election ads prominently featuring Denham. A May 28 event held at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino raised money for a state license plate program that supports families of slain military personnel.
Memo called inaccurate
A leaked Chukchansi marketing department memo, which casino officials dismissed as inaccurate, suggested the concert also was meant to benefit Denham's campaign. The event ads didn't cite Denham's candidacy but did give him valuable exposure throughout the San Joaquin Valley congressional district.
An Air Force veteran and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Denham said Wednesday that he was trying to help his fellow veterans and their family members. He said he didn't know he would be featured in the radio and television advertisements when his state Senate account contributed $25,000 and loaned $150,000 to the nonprofit Remembering the Brave Foundation.
"I am confident that we have followed the letter of the law," Denham said, citing written legal advice his campaign received from a campaign finance specialist.
Federal law prohibits candidates from spending money on their federal campaigns that had been raised originally for a state campaign. At the same time, candidates have some leeway in how they distribute state campaign funds.
Several campaign finance experts previously interviewed by The Bee suggested contributions to a charity that runs ads potentially benefiting a candidate fall into a gray area of the law.
Nunes vigorously backed one of Denham's three opponents, former Tracy-area Congressman Richard Pombo, in the primary. Still, Nunes' post-election call for a Federal Election Commission and Justice Department investigation marked an extraordinary departure from the tradition that parties unify once a primary is over.
A long-term problem?
In the short term, the ad and claims of illegality may only marginally complicate Denham's general election bid to represent a district stretching from Modesto to Fresno. Denham is the overwhelming favorite to beat Democratic nominee Loraine Goodwin in a district where Republicans enjoy a large voter registration advantage.
Longer term, though, Nunes' public blasting of Denham raises questions about how the two men will be able to work together on common San Joaquin Valley issues. Nunes has had periodically strained relations with the incumbent Denham hopes to replace, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.
Radanovich backed Denham in the race.
Colleagues suggested time might heal campaign wounds.
"In races, things get frustrating," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, "and so what's needed is more communication. Issues, like water, will bring them together." McCarthy switched his support from Denham to Pombo during the race.
"Once an election is over, it's time for people to come together," Denham said, "and I expect the San Joaquin Valley delegation will come together."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0006.