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Little fanfare in Congress races in Valley as Merced's Cardoza runs unopposed

San Joaquin Valley congressmen face little competition Nov. 4 but insist they are taking nothing for granted.

The Valley incumbents still are stockpiling money, working their districts and keeping a close eye on their long-shot challengers. The House members, Republicans and Democrats alike, know that complacency can kill a career.

Mariposa Republican George Radanovich also has a challenger this year for his congressional seat. Longtime educator Peter Leinau has qualified as a Democratic write-in candidate for the 19th Congressional District against the veteran legislator.

Leinau, 55, is principal and lead teacher for the Merced County Office of Education's Jack L. Boyd Outdoor School at Green Meadows, which is near Fish Camp.

Not active in politics, Leinau says he was "shocked" that no Democrat officially challenged Radanovich, who this year is finishing up his seventh term in Congress.

"Something tipped me over the edge in August when I realized nobody was running," Leinau says. "This is too important."

In the 18th District, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Merced Democrat, is running unopposed.

Rept. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, both face challengers who have little money, little name identification and little chance of winning.

The result, for both incumbents, is a race in name only, whose results nonetheless can be telling. The incumbents' goal is not just to win -- that part is assumed -- but to win by a margin hefty enough to deter future challengers as well.

In 2006, Nunes won by a 67% to 30% margin and Costa ran unopposed. As a rule of thumb, incumbents are only considered vulnerable if they win with less than 55% of the vote.

"It's important to win by a good margin," Costa said.

Incumbents generally fight to win even if victory might seem inevitable.

If it's necessary this year, Nunes said, he is prepared to blast his 21st Congressional District with television advertising. He has the money to do so, reporting $901,862 in campaign cash on hand as of Sept. 30. But like his Valley colleagues, he probably won't have the need.

Lawrence Tufts Johnson, the Democrat challenging Nunes, reports having $670 in available campaign cash as of Sept. 30. This translates to political silence. Johnson lacks the money to get his message out; even worse, he's caught in a vicious cycle.

Political professionals -- both with the party and with the political action committees run by unions, corporations and interest groups -- generally only invest in candidates with a proven aptitude for raising money.

Johnson knows as much.

"It's going slow," he said. "We're doing what we can."

Though Johnson's report shows $670, he said that number is now a little more than $2,000. His campaign has been mostly focused on calling Republicans and trying to win them over.

The appeal is simple: Are you better off today than you were eight years ago? Do do you feel safer in your community? Do you feel comfortable with the state of your investments?

"There's an awful lot of anger out there," Johnson said. "It's almost scary."

James Lopez, Costa's opponent, said Republican Party leadership told him if he could raise several hundred thousand, it would chip in with more cash. Lopez's response: forget it. He said he would rather run a grassroots campaign.

Costa reported having $410,873 in available campaign cash as of Sept. 30. Lopez had $3,076 available as of June 30, though he said that number is quite a bit higher now.

Unlike Nunes, Costa said he will be running a "significant" number of radio and television ads.

"I just take every election seriously," Costa said. "Every two years, it's a contract with the voters, and I try to get my contract renewed."

Lopez, by comparison, said he is "walking, walking, walking, talking."

The incumbents' myriad campaign advantages include districts drawn to their respective party's specifications and the ability to serve constituents with problems like lost Social Security checks. The latter is performed by congressional staffers, but it rebounds in the favor of political retention.

"We focus first and foremost on constituent service work," Nunes said.

Republicans, moreover, enjoy a prohibitively one-sided 47% to 35% voter registration advantage in Nunes' district. Costa, too, sits comfortably on a 51% to 33% Democratic registration advantage.

Johnson, for one, knows the numbers. And he knows the political reality.

"The nice thing is, we'll probably come out of this not owing anybody anything," he said.

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