In a normal political year, Democratic Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno and Dennis Cardoza of Merced wouldn't worry about their re-election chances because they hold solidly Democratic districts.
But in a year of political upheaval, Costa and Cardoza must be concerned about how voter anger in the independent San Joaquin Valley will play in the November election.
Costa and Cardoza must still be considered heavy favorites for re-election. The gerrymandered seats make it almost impossible for a Republican to win. But it would be foolish for them to take their seats for granted this year. An anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the country should make every member of Congress nervous.
After Sunday's controversial health care vote, Republicans think they have an opportunity to pick up seats held by Democrats. It might be 1994 all over again -- the year the GOP took control of the House and Senate during the Clinton administration.
But while that may be a good talking point for party regulars, we're more than seven months from the midterm elections and a lot could happen on many hot-button issues. The economy remains the most important, and it will determine who runs Congress in January. If Americans have more confidence in their economic circumstances -- more of them are employed, home foreclosures are under control, bankruptcies have leveled off -- it would be good for Democrats. But if the economic recovery has yet to help middle- class America, Republicans could see big gains in the mid-term elections.
The GOP wants to lump valley Democrats in with Bay Area liberals such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Rep. George Miller of Concord. Costa and Cardoza held off announcing their positions on the the health care bill until Saturday, then voted with their party to push the reform package through the House.
The big question is whether their health care votes will make them vulnerable in November.
Cardoza doesn't think so. "My constituents supported this measure," Cardoza said Monday. "The loudest people on health care aren't necessarily the majority. I've never cast a vote that is more beneficial to the valley."
Costa is in a much safer district than Cardoza, given this year's political dynamics. Still, he remained very cautious -- which is his style on every controversial issue -- before acknowledging his support of health care reform.
But Michael Der Manouel Jr., chairman of the conservative Lincoln Club of Fresno County, thinks both Costa and Cardoza are in trouble.
"I used to believe that registration advantages were critical," he said. "But voter registration doesn't matter anymore because people are so angry. Their taxes are going up, unemployment is going up, and the health bill makes that worse."
He said Republicans will have strong nominees in the 18th District (Cardoza's) and the 20th District (Costa's), and there's "no question that those seats are in play." He said the fall campaign in those districts will be "World War III." So far, though, the Republican challengers in those districts have shown no indication they can raise the money they need to run a credible campaign.
Jeffrey Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, doesn't think the valley Democrats will lose their seats.
"The strength of the registration numbers are in their favor, even with the voter anger that's out there," he said. "By the time we get to the November election, the condition of the economy will be the issue."
But while Cardoza and Costa will probably win, Cummins says the Democrats could lose their majority in the House of Representatives in November.
That would make things very uncomfortable for Costa and Cardoza. They may retain their seats, but they would lose any clout they have from serving with the majority party.
Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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