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This Central Valley Democrat May Be the Key to Flipping Congress—and Taking Down Trump

Josh Harder is a political neophyte who wants to ride the wave of blue anger to Washington. Can he pull it off?


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Democratic congressional challenger Josh Harder (center) aims to saddle the incumbent, Jeff Denham, with ties to the Trump administration.

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Denham (left) helped craft a bipartisan immigration reform bill that failed to make it out of the House.

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If the Democrats are going to take the House of Representatives this fall, the party will have to win at least 24 seats currently held by Republicans. Of those seats, only one represents a district within commuting distance of the Bay Area: the 10th Congressional District. Just over the Altamont Pass from Livermore, the 10th includes the fast-suburbanizing communities of Tracy, Turlock, Modesto, Oakdale, and Manteca. It’s in this last town that we find 32-year-old venture capitalist and first-time Democratic congressional candidate Josh Harder, who has just joined a meeting of Indivisible Manteca, a liberal group whose support he badly needs if he hopes to win in November.

Dressed in jeans and a blue checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Harder looks every bit the Stanford grad and Harvard MBA that he is. But as he munches on a cookie in the breakfast nook of the local Indivisible leader, the fifth-generation Central Valley native is trying to make the dozen activists in attendance understand that he’s not just some Silicon Valley transplant who parachuted into the district to run for office. He wants them to know that he’s one of them. This goal could, on its face, present a challenge for Harder, because he did, in fact, just move back to the district 16 months ago to run for office. For this reason and others, Indivisible didn’t back him in the June primary. Regardless, Harder edged out five others and won the privilege of facing off against four-term Republican incumbent Jeff Denham in November.

If Harder feels any anxiety while selling his vision to the activists here, he isn’t showing it. “The center of the resistance is us,” he begins. “It’s Manteca, Tracy, and the Central Valley. This is the seat that has to flip if we’re going to take the House.” Harder, in spite of his political inexperience, knows how to serve red meat to a deep-blue crowd, yoking Denham to President Donald Trump and his administration at every opportunity. “Ivanka was just in California at a $5,000-a-ticket fundraiser for Denham. Pence has been fundraising too. Three visits!” he yelps. “It means that they think Denham is vulnerable.”

The group—which, after he finishes speaking, votes to endorse Harder—wants to know how he plans to campaign: which radio stations he’s putting ads on (most of the local ones, including the Spanish-language outlets), whether he will put up a billboard near the Altamont Pass (probably not—too expensive), whether he would debate Denham (he would, but Denham likely wouldn’t reciprocate). The Indivisible members also want to know if Harder would vote to reinstall Nancy Pelosi as Speaker if the Democrats gained the majority. Harder refuses to commit: “It’s more important to vote for a Democratic Speaker than to say specifically who that should be.”

Though this group is devoutly left-leaning, nobody grumbles about the dodge. After all, they, too, just want to win. Following the meeting the group’s leader, Wayne Adler, tells me he plans to vote for Harder no matter what his position on Pelosi is. “We are not focused on her. We have our own problems,” he says. This is good news for the challenger. If Harder is to succeed, he’ll need the votes of people like Adler—who moved to the Central Valley three years ago from Reno and works as a manager at a building company—along with plenty of other disparate subsets of this transitioning district: farmworkers, professionals who commute to the Bay Area, retirees, Latinos, whites, centrists who can’t bear the thought of handing Trump another vote in Congress, and liberal activists.

“The real question for the past year and a half was whether this blue-wave energy would dissipate before the election,” Harder says later. “Is it just 20 people in Manteca, or more?”

The surest answer: It’s more, maybe many more. But will it be enough?

To unseat Denham,
a 51-year-old former Air Force mechanic who owns a plastics business and looks like he eats steaks bigger than his young opponent’s head for dinner, Harder is going to have to sell himself to voters as an authentic neighbor, a product as native to the Central Valley as the almonds, peaches, and tomatoes that grow in its fields. So he’s been leaning into his local-boy-makes-good life story: Harder grew up in Turlock, where his father works as an optometrist and his mother volunteers for a local church. He graduated from Modesto High School, after which he left home for college, studying politics and economics at Stanford before going to Harvard, where he earned master’s degrees in business and public policy.

After grad school, Harder joined the Boston Consulting Group, then moved on to Bessemer Venture Partners, the oldest VC firm in the country, eventually rising to vice president, first out of its New York office and then in San Francisco. At Bessemer, Harder led investments in little-known companies including the legal e-discovery outfit Disco, recruitment marketing enterprise Smashfly, and business intelligence firm SiSense. But soon he felt the lure of politics. “I worked a little on the Hillary campaign in 2016. After the loss, I was devastated,” he says.

It was the 2016 election that put the district in play for the midterms, says Patty Hughes, a Democratic operative in Riverbank, a small town bordering Modesto. Before Denham was elected in 2012, the area had been represented by Blue Dog Democrat Gary Condit, from 1989 to 2003, and then the centrist Democrat Dennis Cardoza. (Denham had previously held a different seat, in Santa Clara County, from 2010 to 2012.) Clinton beat Trump in the 10th by 3 points, but Denham defeated Democratic challenger Michael Eggman by 3.4 points. “It’s been a consistently purple-leaning-red district,” Hughes says, but one in which the 2018 election looked ripe for change.

Enter Harder. Returning home to Turlock in April 2017, he took a job teaching business at Modesto Junior College while he prepared for his run. He wasn’t the only one sensing opportunity—more than a dozen Democrats flirted with entering the race, with six ultimately appearing on the ballot. Predictably, Harder faced accusations of opportunism. “In many cases,” the Cook Political Report wrote about him and several other Democratic challengers, “these candidates’ educations and professional successes have taken them far away from the humble hometowns they are now seeking to reconnect with, giving Republicans an opening to portray them as out-of-touch elites.”

For Harder, that impression was cemented by the fact that, even in Democratic circles, he was entirely unknown. Hughes, as well-connected as any Democrat in the district, met him only a few days before he filed to run, at a training conference at the Plumbing and Pipefitters Local 442 union hall in Modesto. “He was born here, went to school here, then went away. That’s not so unusual,” she reasons. However, “nobody knew who the heck he or his family was.”

But Harder had plenty of connections outside the district, which helped him amass a considerable war chest. As of early July, according to Federal Election Commission data, Harder had raised $1,366,552 in contributions greater than $200. Less than 1 percent of that came from donors who lived in the 10th. (Some 13 percent of the $1.3 million didn’t have any address listed with it; an additional $98,852 came in small donations and wasn’t included in the geographic donor breakdown.) The rest poured in from places such as San Francisco, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto. Still, as they so often do, the votes followed the money; in the primary, Harder finished five points ahead of his nearest rival.

“If my ancestors
could survive colonization, we can survive this administration,” Julissa Ruiz Ramirez says. The Cal State Stanislaus student is part of a new generation of Latino activists who see in Denham and the Republican Party the faces of oppression. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz Ramirez became a citizen this year, just in time to get herself arrested in the Capitol Hill office of Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy during negotiations on immigration reform.

It was one of many protests Ruiz Ramirez has carried out at the offices of Republican politicians. On March 5, she and others tried to enter Denham’s district office in Modesto. Staffers locked the doors. After the protesters left, Ruiz Ramirez called the office—not identifying herself as one of the demonstrators—to ask if it was open. “Yes,” the staffer told her, but she would have to come in through the back door. “We just had some Mexicans here protesting outside.” Ruiz Ramirez seethes as she recounts the slight. “I get mad, because the congressman goes on TV, goes on Spanish television and radio, to tell us he’s with us,” she says.

Although it would not have been sufficient to satisfy activists like Ruiz Ramirez, Denham spent seven weeks this spring working on a compromise on immigration policy that would protect Dreamers. Ultimately, the bill failed, but according to congressional scholar Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University, “he took a stand and tried to make it work. He worked hard.”

The way incumbents stay in office when their party is in trouble is by focusing on local issues. And setting himself up as the doomed but earnest champion of the Dreamers could help Denham with the region’s moderate and Latino voters. But that’s assuming they can—or want to—distinguish him from his party’s xenophobic wing. And it’s not just opposition from the left that is endangering Denham: Hardcore Trump voters may fault him for trying to reach a deal on the Dreamers in the first place.

A member of the all but vanished tribe of GOP moderates, Denham may simply not be able to build a meaningful coalition of allies. This is a conclusion that Harder is working to reinforce. “We are not going to get real immigration reform passed with this Congress,” he says. “The only way we do that is by winning some elections in November.”

Right now it’s
hard to tell whether predictions of a blue wave will be borne out—and whether Harder will be able to ride such a wave to victory. He could well end up like another young, inexperienced Democrat, Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old who came within three points of defeating Republican Karen Handel in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Or Harder could follow on the heels of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who unseated 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in the June Democratic primary in New York City. Do voters here want a fresh face, or will they stick with an experienced incumbent with a centrist streak? Harder thinks he knows the answer: “I want to draw a sharp contrast with my opponent,” he says.

Since Harder can bank on the district’s liberal voters, he is free to spend his time playing to the middle, emphasizing local concerns, and hoping that the blue wave carries him the rest of the way. “We could spend all our time talking about 24 million Americans who have lost healthcare,” he says, “or we can talk about how my congressman voted to take away healthcare from my little brother”—a senior at Cal State Stanislaus. And instead of talking about immigration in the abstract, he points to people like Ruiz Ramirez, who now volunteers with his campaign.

But many of the region’s problems weren’t created in the last election—and won’t be solved in this one. Take the Seneca Foods plant in Modesto. At its postwar height, the factory employed 10,000 people, canning peaches that trucks carried to every corner of the country. Today the plant employs just 265 full-time and 2,165 seasonal workers—and in March, its corporate owners announced that they would be closing the plant down.

“If you take the Central Valley as its own state, it would be the poorest in the entire country. Poorer than West Virginia. The Bay Area would be [the richest]. The question is what to do about it,” Harder says. Here he unleashes his inner wonk, floating a complex proposal to index the payroll tax against the county’s unemployment rate. It feels like a glimpse of the part of Harder that he keeps offstage: earnest, data driven, and as dry as the valley would be without all the canals and reservoirs. But just like the water infrastructure, it may end up being just what Harder’s home turf needs in order to flourish again.

Originally published in the August issue of
San Francisco

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