The Sun Voter Guide

Big spending, heavy fighting for Valley’s sole open Congressional seat

California’s 13th Congressional District, the Central Valley’s lone open Congressional seat, is one of the battleground districts that is drawing national attention for the crucial role it could play in determining which party controls the House of Representatives next January. 

The western Valley seat only opened up after longtime Rep. Jerry McNerney (D – Stockton) announced his retirement earlier this year, opening the door for Turlock Democrat Josh Harder to move north into a more liberal-leaning district anchored in San Joaquin County. 

That allowed Asm. Adam Gray (D–Merced) to seek a leap from the California State Legislature to Congress.

Gray, who was first elected to the California Assembly in 2012, is seen as one of the most business-friendly moderate Democrats in the legislature. 

Gray has hewed far closer to the Blue Dog Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Costa (D–Fresno), than he has the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

His opponent is Modesto nursery owner John Duarte, a Republican who rose to prominence in a lawsuit against the federal government over the Army Corps of Engineers preventing him from farming his land for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.  

Duarte has been hailed as a conservative leader by GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield), and the nursery owner has been vocal about being someone who will fight against President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

Despite Democrats holding a 14-point advantage in voter registration in the 13th District, Duarte beat Gray by 3.4 points in the primary, and Republican candidates overall drew 51.9 percent of the vote in the district. 

But voters in the district also supported Biden by more than 10 points over President Donald Trump in 2020. 

The volatile nature of the district’s voting history is enough to keep either candidate from feeling too confident heading into November. 

Pressing issues nationally and locally are driving the campaign, from abortion, soaring gas prices, public safety, and water availability.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sought to paint Duarte an extremist for his stance on abortion. In a recent debate, Duarte called himself a moderate on abortion and said women should have access to it for the first three months of pregnancy. 

Gray takes a far more progressive stance on abortion, going as far as being a co-author of Proposition 1, the ballot measure that would guarantee the right to an abortion in the California Constitution. 

Duarte has called for the state’s gas tax to be suspended and blamed Democrats and career politicians for this year’s high prices. 

Gray, for his part, co-authored a bill earlier this year that would have suspended the gas tax, but his fellow Democrats largely stifled any progress it would have had.

A surprising development in the race has been the law enforcement endorsements Gray picked up. 

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke and Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse have backed Gray. 

Ultimately, Gray has posited that he is the only candidate in the race who will stand up to his own party, saying in a recent debate that Duarte will be afraid to disagree with the Republican Party when Republicans are in the wrong. 

Duarte, though, said Gray would go to Washington hardly as a moderate, instead falling in line with the rest of the Democratic Party on bills such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the Build Back Better Act and others.

Thus far, the race is the 17th-most expensive Congressional battle in the United States, per data from the California Target Book.

In total, more than $4.5 million has been spent by the two parties and campaigns.

Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republican Super PAC, leads spending among all involved with $2.55 million spent in support of Duarte.

Republicans currently hold a $615,185 spending edge in the swing seat.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.