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How this pro-impeachment California Republican congressman avoided Liz Cheney’s fate

San Francisco Chronicle 8/17/2022 By Joe Garofoli
Rep. David Valadao is the only Republican impeachment supporter who did not have a Trump-endorsed candidate running against them. © Bill Clark/Getty Images

Rep. David Valadao is the only Republican impeachment supporter who did not have a Trump-endorsed candidate running against them.

Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss in the Wyoming primary Tuesday means that Central Valley Rep. David Valadao is one of only two Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump who will appear on the November ballot.

Of the 10 GOP members who voted with Democrats on impeachment last year, four — including Cheney, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee — have lost their primaries, and four decided not to seek re-election. Only Valadao, R-Hanford (Kings County), and Rep. Dan Newhouse, who was first elected to represent a Washington district in 2014, survived crossing Trump.

And that points to a big reason why Valadao’s candidacy is still alive. While Cheney been one of Trump’s most vocal critics about his actions in fomenting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Valadao doesn’t mention it unless he’s asked about it — and even then, reluctantly. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Cheney urged Republicans not to support any election deniers during her concession speech Tuesday, after losing the primary to Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman. Hageman, an attorney who lost a previous run for governor in Wyoming, supports the unfounded belief that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump.

“Absolutely the election was rigged,” Hageman said during a campaign stop this month in Casper. “It was rigged to make sure that President Trump could not get re-elected.”

That’s a far cry from 2016, when she supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president over Trump, who she called “racist and xenophobic.” She tried to block Trump’s nomination at the last minute at the Republican National Convention. Last month, Hageman referred to Trump as “the greatest president of my lifetime.”

Cheney noted Tuesday that she won her 2020 primary with 73% of the vote, when she was the third-highest ranking Republican in the House and someone who voted to support Trump 92% of the time, according to FiveThirtEight.com. But that was before Trump turned on her after her impeachment vote.

“I could easily have done the same again, the path was clear, but it would have required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election,” Cheney said Tuesday. “It would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic.”

There are several differences between Cheney and Valadao’s situations.

Trump stayed silent: Unlike what he did in Wyoming, Trump did not endorse another Republican running against Valadao in the primary. Remaining on the sidelines helped Valadao in a district that President Biden carried by 13 percentage points in 2020. Valadao is the only Republican impeachment supporter who did not have a Trump-endorsed candidate running against them. The California Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents a nearby Central Valley district, have steadfastly backed him.

A crowded field: Valadao was fortunate to be opposed by two Trump-supporting Republicans who split the former president’s supporters. Valadao beat Chris Mathys by 1,310 votes in the primary to advance to the general election in November. The other Republican in the race, hairdresser and Kings County Board of Education member Adam Medeiros, a Trump supporter, was inspired to run after Valadao’s impeachment vote. It wasn’t an easy choice — Medeiros said he styled Valadao’s hair for 15 years until that fateful vote. He finished in fourth place in the primary with 6% of the vote.

Mathys received support from an unlikely source: the Democrat-affiliated House Majority PAC, which ran ads telling viewers that Mathys supports Trump while Valadao voted against Trump’s border wall and for impeachment. Its goal in doing that was to elevate who they thought was a weaker opponent for Assembly Member Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, in November.

“The top two primary likely helped Valadao,” said Lisa Bryant, a professor of political science at Fresno State University.

A Democratic-leaning district: While Cheney ran in ruby-red Wyoming, Valadao is running in a district whose boundaries were redrawn during the redistricting process. Democrats have a 17-point advantage in voter registration over the GOP (43% to 26%) in the new turf.

“He is in a very tricky position,” Bryant said. While Trump supporters may view Valadao suspiciously, Bryant said it would be foolish for Valadao to tout his voting record — he supported Trump’s position nearly 97% of the time. That could alienate him from the 23% of voters who are registered as having no party preference.

Salas is mindful that the district leans Democratic but not too far left and includes many low-income workers. That is one reason he frequently touts that he bucked fellow Democrats in the Legislature by being the only member of his party not to support increasing the gasoline tax to pay for road repairs in 2017. His campaign is likely to hammer Valadao for not supporting the $1 trillion infrastructure law last year and for his strong anti-abortion views in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Nevertheless, Valadao has got a shot. Three different nonpartisan political analysts — the Cook Political Report, Inside Politics with Nathan Gonzales and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball — rate the contest between Valadao and Salas as a “toss-up.”

“For the most part, Valadao has been a fairly moderate Republican and he has tried to fly sort of under the radar,” Bryant said. “He has a history of knowing when it's safe for him to stand up against the party.”

Valadao has $1.7 million in cash on hand, according to the most recent federal campaign finance reports, more than double the $690,476 that Salas has on hand. He will need every last dollar to get out his voters. If Valadao is going to win the race, he has to make sure Republican voters cast ballots — and not refuse to support him because of his impeachment vote, Bryant said.

“Getting Republicans to turn out,” Bryant said, “is going to be a big challenge.”

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli

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