SAN FRANCISCO — Rep. Devin Nunes — the lightning rod House Intelligence Committee member who was nearly knocked off in the midterm — will face a 2020 Democratic challenge from a Fresno Latino businessman who charges the California GOP congressman has been silent on the proposed “Trump tax” tariffs that he says will slam Central Valley farmers and consumers.
Phil Arballo, 40, a financial adviser, cites Nunes’ unflagging support of President Trump’s policies as evidence that the seven-term Republican has failed to stay in touch with the economic concerns of his Central Valley constituents. Of special concern, he said, has been Nunes’ failure to stand up for farmers and business people when it comes to Trump’s calls for tariffs on goods from Mexico, California’s largest trading partner.
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“We haven’t heard anything from Devin on how this is hurting our farmers,’’ said Arballo in an interview, telling POLITICO he will officially launch his run against Nunes Thursday. “That’s going to come back to haunt us, and consumers are going to be paying for it down the road.”
Arballo, the third Democrat to file for the seat, has received the strong backing of Andrew Janz, who raised $9.2 million in a surprisingly close 2018 loss to Nunes in the Republican-oriented district.
“Phil Arballo is our best chance to defeat Devin Nunes, hands down,’’ said Janz, in a statement to POLITICO. “I’m proud to support Phil and know that he’ll be the champion the Valley needs.”
In the conservative Central Valley district, where Republicans have a 9 percentage point voter registration advantage, Janz came within 5 points of defeating Nunes. But the Fresno prosecutor has opted out of a rematch — deciding instead to make a bid for Fresno mayor this time around.
Nunes raised $12.6 million in 2018, and spent $11.5 million in 2018 to maintain his seat, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Arballo told POLITICO in his first campaign interview Wednesday that he plans to stress how the Central Valley has been cheated by Nunes in its congressional representation. The GOP congressman, he said, has been more interested in pushing his national profile as a Fox News regular and defender of President Trump on issues like the Russia probe and impeachment than in addressing issues in his district with his own constituents.
Last October, Trump suggested that Nunes deserves the Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — for his controversial efforts to push back against the Russia investigation.
“I don’t believe impeachment is going to be a topic’’ that is top of mind to Democratic voters, said Arballo, an active member of the Fresno Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “What is going to matter here in the Valley is everyday things” that will affect local pocketbooks and livelihoods, he said. With GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy calling on Republicans to back the tariffs, “that’s going to be a hot topic’’ in the race ahead, as will health care issues and the concerns about the viability of the Affordable Care Act, he said.
Arballo, who is Mexican-American and the son of a single mother, says his personal background — he was raised in Fresno and is a graduate of Fresno State, is married to a linguistics teacher, and is the father of two — gives him a much closer understanding of the lives of Central Valley voters. Latinos outnumber white voters by 46-40 percent in the district, and could represent a key advantage in the next race if Democrats succeed in boosting their turnout, campaign insiders say.
“With the national turnout what it was last time around, we’re excited to see more Latinos and more people of color in the district. There’s a hunger out there from the base…and people will be knocking on doors and excited to engage in the race with Nunes and with [Duncan] Hunter,’’ the embattled San Diego congressman who has also been named as a target by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said one Democratic Party insider who spoke not for publication.
Arballo acknowledges that, while many voters in the district are conservative and supported Trump, an increasing number are disenchanted “that [Nunes] is using them for a political game…he chooses to be in Washington,’’ instead of returning back home to his district to hear their concerns.
Arballo criticized Nunes, who has limited his public appearances in recent years, saying
“Pete Buttigieg has done more town halls here than Devin has’’ — a reference to the South Bend, Indiana, Democratic presidential candidate who held a town hall meeting last week in Fresno.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that Nunes plans a June 28 fundraiser in that city — which is not located in his district — in a location his campaign apparently attempted to keep under wraps to thwart protesters. But the @DevinCow Twitter parody account, posted by Republican strategist Liz Mair, revealed the location as the tony Thousand Hills Ranch in Pismo Beach. The county party’s website shows a fundraiser listed, but only indicates the presence of a “special guest.”
Nunes’ high profile as the former Intelligence Committee chair and author of the “Nunes Memo” made him a hero to conservatives and a target of the left on social media — fueling fundraising on both sides of the aisle.
Nunes’ effort to sue the @DevinCow Twitter account for $250 million has made him the object of derision in social media circles, and earned half a million new followers for its author, Liz Mair, who has been supported by online fundraising for legal defense. The congressman also filed another $150 million suit charging defamation against the McClatchy news organization and its local paper, the Fresno Bee, with whom he waged war in the last cycle.
But the California Target Book, a non-partisan tracking of state races, reported that Nunes raised $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2019 and ended with $4,915,893 on hand — the 3rd-largest campaign war chest for any House incumbent in the country, behind only California Democrat Adam Schiff ($5,541,987) and Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi ($5,174,470).
Already, the race against Nunes is getting crowded. Bobby Bliatout — the third place Democratic candidate in 2016 — has announced he’s making a second run at the seat, and another Democrat, Dary Rezvani, has also filed.