HANFORD, Calif. – It’s been a year now, but in this Central Valley farm town, like the nation, the divide has only grown.
Todd Cotta was working in his gun shop when a customer came in with the news about David Valadao, the Republican congressman for whom Cotta had campaigned across Kings County and beyond just months before.
Bewildered, Cotta turned to his phone and tapped in a text message to a man he considered a friend.
“Hey David. Somebody’s spreading a nasty (rumor) that you voted to impeach Trump,” Cotta wrote. “I certainly hope that’s not true.”
Within seconds, Valadao responded.
The two haven’t talked since.
And, really, neither have the two sides of the country.
A year after President Donald Trump was impeached for a historic second time, few places better illustrate America’s lost middle ground.
Historians will look back to Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, as a day of infamy. But in Valadao’s hometown of Hanford, they point to Jan. 13, 2021, when, as local mechanic Joe Flower puts it, the local congressman “not only stabbed the president but stabbed us all in the back.”
Valadao was one of just 10 Republican House members — and the only one in California — who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection.
That decision put the 44-year-old dairy farmer and the other reviled Republicans in the crosshairs of Trump himself, who gloated after two of them announced last fall they would not seek re-election: “2 down, 8 to go!” Indeed, a third — Rep. John Katko of New York — announced Friday he too was done with Congress.
For Valadao, vilification over the vote — and a redrawn congressional district that cuts out some of his conservative base and adds more Democratic voters — has left him in a political no man’s land. On the nation’s political map, the backlash in California’s cattle country could also cost the GOP a precious seat as Republicans hope to flip the Democrat-controlled House during the November midterm elections.
“Those angry Trump supporters aren’t going to vote for a Democrat in November, but it’s entirely possible that they simply don’t vote at all,” said GOP political consultant Dan Schnur. “This could end up being the greatest challenge to congressional Republicans regaining their majorities.”
While Democrats called Valadao’s impeachment vote courageous, there’s no chance they’re crossing party lines to give him their vote. For Republicans, there is no getting past his egregious lapse in loyalty. A year later, who remembers that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose district nuzzles against Valadao’s, said at the time “the president bears responsibility for (Jan. 6’s) attack on Congress by mob rioters”? They only remember the impeachment votes.
For a moment there, in the days after the Capitol breach, it seemed safe, maybe even smart, for a Republican to condemn Trump’s behavior. It wasn’t clear you were committing political suicide within the GOP the way it is now when a solid majority of Republicans still believe Trump’s persistent discredited claims that the election was stolen.
On the day of the impeachment, Valadao said he was voting his conscience, that Trump’s “inciting rhetoric was un-American, abhorrent, and absolutely an impeachable offense. It’s time to put country over politics.” He hasn’t said much on the topic since — and declined interview requests for this story.
But the bad blood after Valadao’s vote runs deep in Hanford, especially among many in the tight-knit Portuguese community that settled into ranching and farming in the Central Valley more than a century ago.
Principled politics? If Hanford is a sign, there is little appetite for it in America, especially among the breakfast regulars at the Overland Stockyard Cafe. Nearly a dozen gather at 6 every morning, pulling into the dirt parking lot while it’s still dark. The tule fog was so thick Tuesday morning that on the life-size bronze statue out front, you could barely see that the two cowboys on horseback were shaking hands.
Even a year after the impeachment vote, the men become so riled over the topic that they cuss over coffee and pound the table as the waitress serves linguica and eggs and reminds them to “take a deep breath” while discussing the congressman.
“He’s related to me and I don’t give a damn,” said Jack Toledo, 78, who just returned from Tulsa showing cattle. “He used to fight for us, but, boy, he turned coat.”
Toledo remembers the day at the Bakersfield airport two years ago when Trump held a rally to celebrate new federal rules that would deliver more water to the parched region. Toledo said he stood on the hangar floor for four hours with Valadao’s parents and brother as Trump introduced the congressman to the crowd.
“He talked him up, big time. He had him up there, shaking his hand,” said Toledo, who now has no use for Valadao. “After everybody supported him around here and fought for him and he did that?”
The only cattleman to stick up for Valadao at the Stockyard Cafe strolled in late.
“I like David. He’s made some mistakes,” said Phillip O’Martin. “Jesus said those without sin throw the first rock. Well, I’m not throwing no rocks because I sinned my fair share.”
Valadao’s own words about why he voted to impeach are now being used against him by two Republican challengers in the June primary. Chris Mathys, an Army veteran and real estate broker who calls himself a “Pro-President Trump conservative Republican,” emblazoned the incumbent’s impeachment quotes on a campaign flyer, attacking Valadao as a “RINO” — Republican in name only.
But Valadao has been a Trump conservative in nearly every other way, opposing abortion and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and voting to dismantle Obamacare. He has advocated reducing government regulations and moving more water to the Central Valley. A rare leftward position has been on immigration, where he has pushed for reform and a pathway to citizenship in a region that relies heavily on immigrant farmworkers.
Last week, Valadao’s campaign officially announced his candidacy in the newly formed Congressional District 22.
“I’ll continue to be an independent member of Congress who will stand up to the divisive partisanship in Washington, D.C.,” said Valadao, who served three terms before narrowly losing in 2018 to Democrat TJ Cox. He then won a rematch in 2020 by only 1,500 votes. His new district that stretches to Bakersfield is a boon to his Democratic opponent, state Assemblymember Rudy Salas, whose campaign called the race “the best pickup opportunity for Democrats in the entire country.”
Some believe Valadao’s impeachment vote may have been an attempt to appeal to blue voters in a district that backed Biden over Trump by double digits. But Democrats say his conservative credentials made that impossible.
Oralia Vallejo, a former farmworker and Democratic activist in Hanford who sits on the nonprofit Kings County Latino Roundtable, said that while “we were very impressed and very surprised” with Valadao’s impeachment vote, she is backing Salas, a popular moderate, for Congress.
“He has a history with us,” Vallejo said. “He attends our meetings. He sends representatives, and so we’re aware of where he stands.”
With the omicron variant spreading quickly, many activists are more concerned now about getting COVID tests to schoolchildren than the June primary. In Kings County, about half of residents are unvaccinated, the fourth-highest unvaccinated rate in the state.
Respect for individual liberties is a treasured value here, especially at Cotta’s gun store, where neither Cotta nor any of his employees are vaccinated, he said, and customers are told to take off their masks when they enter. A number of businesses across the region openly defied the state’s lockdown orders, including the Medeiros beauty salon on 10th Avenue, where Valadao got his hair cut for 10 years — before his fated impeachment vote.
“I actually just didn’t believe it,” said Adam Medeiros, who owns the salon. “I said ‘No, I’ll wait until David comes back and then he’ll explain it.’ And then I never saw him again.”
With encouragement from his customers, Medeiros has also entered the primary race as a Republican against his former customer. He’s raised about $50,000 to Valadao’s $1.2 million and knows he’s a long shot. But judging by his conversations with customers, Valadao’s chances are worse still.
“Ninety-eight percent of everyone I talked to said they would never vote for him again,” he said. “It was that cut and dried.”
Medeiros plans to campaign through his church network, but when asked if he believes Salas, the Democrat, will win, his response was unequivocal: “Absolutely. Rudy has the strongest chance. He has been very moderate.”
For a culture that tends to prize stubborn independence, Valadao has received few accolades for his. His Facebook page is often littered with random comments from people still simmering over the vote.
“Time to retire and hand it over to a MAGA candidate,” one commenter posted last month. “You have zero chance because Trump supporters remember your impeachment vote.”
When another Facebook user dared to commend Valadao for his policy positions as well as his impeachment vote, he was quickly shot down by the next commenter: “Rino,” it said.
Whether Valadao can redeem himself in the eyes of his community remains to be seen. But he plans on trying. In his campaign announcement Wednesday, he said he looks forward to introducing himself to new voters in the redrawn district. But that’s not all: “I’m excited to earn the vote of old friends.”
That may be his toughest challenge yet.
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