It’s no secret that Josh Harder’s successful campaign against Republican Congressman Jeff Denham in 2018 was a blow to Adam Gray’s political hopes. Insiders agree that Gray had planned to run against Denham in 2020, before he was termed out by the “lifetime” California term limits rule of 12 years total in office of any kind. Gray was elected to the 21st Assembly District in 2012, winning office with 58.2% of the vote.
Since then, Gray’s hold on office has only grown stronger. He was reelected in 2020 with a 59.6% majority win. Like many Valley Democrats, some of whom were showing up at Denham fundraisers just weeks before Election Day, Gray almost certainly expected Harder to lose in 2018.
Harder’s win and subsequent cruise to victory over Republican Ted Howze in 2020 upset the conventional wisdom about Valley politics, which dictates that, in order to win, Democrats must become “Blue Dogs” who follow the lead of former Congressman Gary Condit, one of the founders of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition in 1995. Gray was formerly married to Condit’s daughter, Cadee Condit Gray. They are now divorced.
Blue Dog Democrats lean to the right. The term originated with southern Democrats from the once “solid” Democratic south, before blowback from the Civil Rights Act turned southern states bright red.
In California, Blue Dog Democrats tend to be culturally and fiscally conservative. They fall in line with Republicans in their support for liberal spending on defense, however. Grass roots Democrats, especially an emerging cadre of active young Dems, consider them Republicans.
Harder, a Valley native who was born in Turlock, rewrote the Valley’s political playbook when he ran as a conventional Democrat and won. A few Valley Democrats are still smarting from the blow to their plans and prestige. They’re especially bothered because he won without them.
Harder’s ability to win without corporate dollars and his special talent for face-to-face connection with voters represents a threat to well-established and mostly conservative channels of money and power that have run though the Valley for decades. The problem for his opponents is he can raise millions without relying on traditional sources; he’s truly a candidate of and for the people.
Shortly after redistricting changed the contours of the Valley’s political map, Josh Harder announced he would exit District 10 and run for the newly configured California Congressional District 13, which includes a large swath of Gray’s current 21st Assembly District. On January 5, a short-lived Tweet announced Gray would be running for Congress in the same district. Almost immediately, Gray spokesperson Mike Lynch discredited the claim; the Tweet disappeared shortly thereafter, but disclaimers about its origins from both Lynch and Gray didn’t end speculation about Adam Gray’s political future.
Some observers think the Tweet was a trial balloon, released as a way of testing Gray’s viability against a rising star in the Democratic Party who will be running in a newly drawn district.
If Gray were to run against Harder, it would almost certainly mean running to Harder’s right. The analogy that comes to mind is Mani Grewal’s recent primary campaign for state senate against Susan Eggman, when Grewal alienated many Democratic voters by running as “a different kind of Democrat,” different in this case meaning “right-leaning.”
Before it ended with Grewal running far behind Eggman in a needlessly expensive primary, the campaign became bitter and divisive. The only beneficiary was Republican candidate Jim Ridenour, who coasted into second place behind Eggman while spending pennies compared to Eggman’s and Grewal’s dollars. Ridenour then got thumped by Eggman.
Political memories are short, and not always to the benefit of aspiring candidates. In 2018, Josh Harder emerged triumphant from the strongest primary field of District 10 candidates in anyone’s memory, a field that included Michael Eggman, Virginia Madueno, and Sue Zwahlen. Harder then beat a long-term Republican incumbent many observers deemed invincible.
Gray versus Harder may sound enticing to right-leaning Democrats frustrated by Josh Harder’s ability to win without them, but, at the end, the only gain would be to Republicans, who would love to see an expensive bloodletting between two of the Valley’s strongest Democrats. Adam Gray can serve himself and the Democratic Party far better by looking elsewhere for a fight, perhaps against Republican Tom McClintock, who just declared for Congressional District 5, which now includes Modesto and much of Stanislaus County.
Josh Harder has proven himself worthy of Valley voters, and he’s getting stronger every day.