State - INACTIVE

Valley farmers likely to hedge on Senate candidates

WASHINGTON -- California farmers have opened up their checkbooks for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, even if many don't vote for her.

Now this apparent tension between political fund raising and voting behavior underscores a serious challenge for both Boxer and her newly anointed Republican opponent, Carly Fiorina.

It's also an object lesson in California realpolitik.

So far, Boxer has emphatically outpaced Fiorina in raising money from farm-related political action committees. These same PACs, though, represent farmers in traditionally GOP-friendly Central Valley counties.

It could be a formula for internal conflict.

"This year is going to be a tight race," Bill Mattos, president of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation, predicted Friday, "and I think you're going to see some of our members supporting both candidates."

Johnny Amaral, the politically connected chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, agreed Friday that "there's going to be a lot of hedging going on."

Boxer has raised at least $64,000 from farm-related political action committees since January 2009. By contrast, Fiorina has raised only $2,000 from agricultural PACs since January 2009, records compiled by the nonpartisan Moneyline show.

Boxer needs the money to win, especially against a self-funding millionaire candidate such as Fiorina. This means continuing to tap groups like the Bakersfield-based CalCot, a major cotton producers' organization whose PAC contributed $1,000 to the Boxer campaign in mid-January.

Fiorina needs money, too, and she's certain to boost her harvest from farm groups and individuals. Her sole farm-related PAC contribution to date came in April from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The California Farm Bureau Federation has endorsed her.

More importantly, Fiorina also needs to rack up big Central Valley vote totals to offset Boxer's dominance in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Conversely, Boxer needs to keep the margin in Central Valley counties as close as possible even if she ultimately ends up losing them. In 2004, for instance, Republican candidate Bill Jones beat Boxer in Stanislaus and Fresno counties, but not by the absolute blowouts he needed.

Boxer performed least well during 2004 in farm counties such as Tulare and Madera.

In addition to political action committees, individual farmers make their own contributions. In January, for instance, Turlock Fruit Co. co-owner Stephen Smith contributed $1,000 to Fiorina.

Consistently rated one of the Senate's most liberal members, Boxer demonstrates several practical truths about politics with her fund-raising prowess among traditionally conservative farmers. One is the power of incumbency. On average, Federal Election Commission records show, 80 percent of all PAC contributions go to incumbents.

"It has everything to do with the fact that she's an incumbent," Amaral said when asked about Boxer's fund raising.

In part, political professionals don't want to antagonize someone who can vote against their interests. Incumbents can also tangibly help a particular industry that's represented by a political action committee.

Boxer, for instance, has worked on several California poultry issues during her 18-year Senate career. On Feb. 25, Boxer joined Mattos, the poultry federation president, in calling for stricter labeling of saline-injected chicken. California poultry producers typically don't use the saline solution injections.

A week before Boxer and Mattos held their Capitol Hill news conference, records show, the poultry group's PAC contributed $1,500 to Boxer's campaign.

"Over the years, we have educated her and her staff about our issues," Mattos said, "and she's been a staunch supporter."

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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