With only a few short weeks until the June 5 Election Day, and with mail-in ballots coming out in early May, here is our rundown of Democratic candidates for congress in California Congressional District 10. By no means an exhaustive study, we’ve tried to highlight consistent observations of the candidates over the time of the campaign, both positive and negative.
In the case of the candidates we consider strongest, we’ve tried especially hard to include the most consistent criticisms of those candidates. With the possible exception of Mike Barkley, more shortcomings of each candidate are likely to be revealed as opponents dig ever deeper for dirt and defects. Thus far in the campaign, Barkley has failed to gain traction with others as a serious threat to win; therefore, no opposition research.
Here are the candidates in our order of preference, from least to most favored.
According to his own opening statement at local debates, Mike Barkley is, “One of the most qualified candidates in the nation and by far the most qualified in this race.” Barkley bases his self-assessment on his status as a “lawyer, CPA (inactive), and computer programmer.” Barkley is a perennial contender for office, and boasts that his vote totals have grown every year. His web page makes one question his claim as a computer programmer; it looks like a relic from the days of Kaypro and Osborne 1.
Barkley says his expertise in computer programming gives him advantages with data, and there’s no question he has more data on his website than any other candidate. The page is impressive in much the same way a vast, underground labyrinth of ant tunnels is impressive, especially when you imagine the multitude of tiny, tiny movements involved over eons, but there it is, and there is Mike Barkley, a candidate again this year. He admits he’s done very little community or charity work over his lifetime of seventy plus years.
After running in 2014 and 2016, Michael Eggman announced last year that he wouldn’t run in the 2018 election, and then suddenly changed his mind early this year.
The most persistent rumor explaining Eggman’s late entry in the 2018 campaign is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee encouraged him to jump into the race after a late December or early January poll showed him leading over other candidates. The poll was clearly based on name recognition.
Eggman announced his candidacy January 29, and didn’t have a website up until almost mid-April. Some of his early supporters have been dismayed at what seems to be a desultory start to a campaign many Democrats consider crucial in the plan to regain control of the House of Representatives. Eggman’s previous two campaigns should have given him plenty of experience and made him realize the need to campaign hard and constantly, but there’s been little sign of that so far.
Eggman did raise an impressive $165,733 in the first quarter of this year, second only to Josh Harder. But insiders are worried about his lack of a ground game, weak messaging—not much beyond, “local farmer and beekeeper—and what looks like a loss of weight. There have been rumors of personal problems, but no one has confirmed anything other than what may just be a strategy to come on late and strong.
Our take is that Eggman may be giving too much credit to name recognition and previous experience. This is a difficult campaign and he is against a field of formidable competitors. Unless he has a surprise late strategy, we think Eggman may be falling behind strong campaigners like Virginia Madueno, Sue Zwahlen, and Josh Harder, with too little time to recover.
Most of Sue Zwahlen’s campaign money is her own and in the form of loans to her campaign. She’s also spent less than anyone but Mike Barkley. Clearly, her strategy is to draw from a solid core of strong supporters in her home city of Modesto. Zwahlen lists over 400 endorsements from a platinum list of elite local Democrats and Republicans (most of her family members, including her husband, are Republicans). Zwahlen received over 18,000 votes in her 2013 campaign for a seat on the Modesto City Schools Board of Education. She’s an emergency room nurse and has a long record of community service.
Few insiders give her a chance in this crowded field, but no one should underestimate her popularity with many of Modesto’s most influential political insiders of both parties. She’s also popular with Modesto teachers and school administrators. She has little reach beyond Modesto, but her focused strategy is both intelligent and very well-managed.
Like other candidates in the race, she now faces the possibility that Republican Ted Howze will finish ahead of any Democrat because the large field will spread the Democratic vote too thin. If she pulls 18,000 votes again, she’s in line for a “political genius” award.
Madueno has momentum and appears to be closing toward June 5 in a sprint. No longer ambiguous and vague on health care, she’s embraced Medicare for all, probably on condition of receiving an endorsement from Dotty Nygard. Nygard was an early candidate who withdrew from the campaign, but whose name will still appear on the June 5 ballot because of a late withdrawal.
Madueno is the best public speaker of all the candidates, has a coveted endorsement and financial support from Emily’s List, and is racking up an impressive list of big name endorsements from outside the district, including one from San Francisco’s Jackie Speier. She’s also a favorite of many of the district’s young Facebook activists.
Madueno’s experience as Mayor of Riverbank and her long history of community and regional involvement give her a strong local résumé. Skeptics cite her fundraising figures, far behind those of Eggman and Harder, and two recent political losses as an incumbent mayor and candidate for assembly. Both losses were to Republicans.
Supporters point to her natural charisma, warm personality, clear commitment to the region, business success, political involvement, and marquee endorsements. After a hesitant and tentative start, Madueno has emerged as a clear favorite.
Very early on, Harder was attacked by a popular local activist for his supposed Wall Street and corporate connections, including what some view as a failed venture with Blue Apron. In some of his early encounters with young activists, he was perceived as distant and even rude. It’s likely many of his early problems stemmed from a preppy look and an education some regard as elitist. He’s only 31 years old, but has an impressive history in business, volunteer work, and educational achievement.
Harder is by far the best fundraiser in the campaign, but detractors point to his reliance on money outside the district. Nonetheless, not only has he raised the most money, he has by far the most individual donors of sums that require listing; he takes no corporate PAC donations. Given his multitude of donors, it certainly looks as though a lot of confirmed Democrats are confident Josh Harder will carry their platform of universal health care, humane immigration reform, affordable education, and local job creation to congress and beyond.
Harder is also one of the only leading candidates whose platform has been solidly Democratic from the very beginning. He’s stronger on labor than any other candidate, has been in favor of Medicare for all from the first day of his campaign, and puts job creation first in his list of priorities.
Harder has used his advantage in funding to mount an impressive district-wide campaign. His volunteers have already knocked on almost every district voter’s door, and are beginning a second round.
Of all candidates, Harder was the earliest to form the kind of far-reaching organization it will take to defeat incumbent Republican Jeff Denham. While Virginia Madueno has a clear edge over Harder in public speaking, Harder is better on content. His command of complex issues, local, national, and international, is best among all candidates.
While each candidate has different strengths, Harder and Madueno have emerged as strong frontrunners in the campaign for CA-10. Both face the problem of other candidates draining off enough votes to prevent any Democrat from surviving the “jungle primary,” which puts the top two vote getters in the general election.
Republican Ted Howze remains a formidable threat to finish ahead of any Democrat, if only because the Democratic field is so crowded with contenders. Incumbent Republican Jeff Denham is expected to win the primary easily. The real contest is for second place.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.