Can Ted Howze unseat CA Democratic Congressman Josh Harder?

Josh Harder, left, and Ted Howze Democratic Rep. Josh Harder didn’t make the list of the GOP’s top targets for 2020. The freshman California congressman looked practically safe in a purple district just two years after unseating four-term Republican Rep. Jeff Denham. Then, this summer the national Republican Party pulled […]

Josh Harder, left, and Ted Howze

Josh Harder, left, and Ted Howze

Democratic Rep. Josh Harder didn’t make the list of the GOP’s top targets for 2020. The freshman California congressman looked practically safe in a purple district just two years after unseating four-term Republican Rep. Jeff Denham.

Then, this summer the national Republican Party pulled out of the race entirely when racist social media posts surfaced from the pages of Harder’s opponent, Ted Howze. The move seemed to hand the district to Harder.

But, a month from Election Day, Howze is reclaiming some of the support he lost over social media posts that House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy in May called “disappointing and disturbing.”

Nine local mayors in the district are supporting Howze, including Patterson Mayor Deborah M. Novelli, who had previously said she found Howze’s posts offensive, and Howze signs still pepper the district. Novelli recorded a robocall for Howze’s campaign, but did not respond to a request for comment.

The district is one of the seven California Democrats claimed from Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. Since then, Republicans have taken one seat back in a special election and are trying to claw back more seats in the November general election.

Harder’s campaign is still “very confident,” according to spokesman Ian Lee.

Lee cited Harder’s work in Congress, such as working to help local businesses fund jobs in coronavirus relief packages, a “strong grassroots” campaign and a lack of options for the Howze campaign to explain the Democratic campaign’s outlook.

“We’re up against a candidate who has a complete lack of party support and hasn’t gotten support from the community in order to get out his message.”

Howze, a former Turlock city councilman, lost the Republican Party’s support after dozens of posts on his social media accounts surfaced, which included posts denigrating Muslims, comparing an immigrant group to pedophiles and mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.

One post said Muslims can’t “ever truly be a good American citizen(s).” Another speculated that former President Barack Obama was a Muslim. One more asked of the Black Lives Matter community: “As a culture 95% percent of you vote in lock step for the same political party who held you as physical slaves and now wish to keep you as political slaves unable to effect any real change for the better.”

Howze has denied he wrote the posts, saying someone else with access to his social media published them. He declines to say who wrote them.

Howze lately has been characterizing Harder as “nervous,” charging on social media that the Democrat’s well-funded campaign shows the race is in play. Howze also has support from law enforcement unions.

“By their spending on TV it looks like Congressman Josh Harder and his DC buddies know they have a race on their hands! It’s #UsVThem and we have the power of REAL people,” Howze wrote on Twitter in mid-September.

But Howze is struggling to raise money to keep up with Harder on advertising.

The Republican’s campaign had about $100,000 more in debt than it did in cash on hand at the end of June, according to Federal Elections Commission records. Harder, D-Turlock, has $4.4 million in cash and no debt at the same time period.

“As far as I know he doesn’t have any broadcast buys, and we’re up on TV so people know what Josh has done,” Lee of Harder’s campaign said. “Howze doesn’t have the resources to meet people where they are.”

Howze’s lack of party support is a huge disadvantage compared to Republican involvement in the race for the House seat in 2018, when the NRCC spent millions of dollars trying to beat Harder.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also spent millions that cycle, and Harder won the seat over the Republican incumbent in 2018. The Democratic House fundraising arm has not been spending in the district this time around, suggesting the party believes it’s safely blue.

In a statement, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Andy Orellana said Howze’s “record of racism explains why no one in the Central Valley wants to come within 10 feet of” him.

With a month to go, Orellana said Harder is in an “incredibly strong position for reelection.”

Mike Lynch, a Democratic political strategist who lives in the district and does not work for Harder, said he’s seen little of Howze. Lynch said he’s received at least a dozen mailers from Harder or Democratic groups supporting him, seen a few TV ads and gotten phone calls from the campaign.

He’s gotten one mailer from Howze, seen no TV ads and hasn’t gotten a phone call from the Howze campaign since the primary — before the social media post scandal.

The one exception where he sees Howe’s campaign, Lynch said, is a lot of yard signs for the Republican. Lynch qualified that metric, too.

“I’ve seen dozens of the 4×4 signs for Howze, but very few on lawns,” Lynch said. “Signs that are on vacant lots and out on the big country lots don’t matter as much, the ones that matter most are the ones you see on lawns — if people like a candidate enough to put the name up on their property. And on that scale, I see a lot more Harder signs than I do Howze signs.”

Howze’s campaign spokesman, Tim Rosales, said the race isn’t over.

“Harder and the California Democratic Party have been in the mail, on digital, etc. almost daily hitting Howze — so he must be nervous,” he said. “As for analyzing the race outside of that — I’m going to leave that to the odds-makers.”

Modesto Bee reporter Kristin Lam contributed to this story.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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