Former Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas on Tuesday launched his long-awaited rematch against Republican Rep. David Valadao, who beat him last year 52-48 after an intensely expensive battle for California's 22nd District. Joe Biden carried this district, which is based in the southern Central Valley and eastern Bakersfield area, by a 55-42 margin in 2020, which makes it one of the bluest seats the GOP holds nationally; only New York's Long Island-based 4th would have favored Biden by a larger margin.
Valadao, though, has a long history of running well ahead of the top of his party's ticket, and both parties are prepared for another pricey battle. The congressman himself raised $710,000 during the second quarter of the year, and he finished June with $980,000 in the bank.
The incumbent proved he wasn't quite invincible in 2018 when Democrat TJ Cox narrowly denied him a fourth term in what was one of the biggest shocks of that year's blue wave, but Valadao won their second bout the following cycle by a tight 50.4-49.6 margin as Biden was carrying the old version of the seat, then numbered the 21st District, 54-44.
A third successive major battle ensued the following cycle, though Democrats had hopes of avoiding Valadao altogether. Just days after being sworn in for his new stint in the 117th Congress, Valadao became one of the 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack, a decision Democrats thought might again cost him his seat—this time, in the top-two primary.
It almost did. The House Majority PAC, a top Democratic super PAC, aired commercials ahead of the primary aimed at boosting Valadao's far-right intra-party foe, former Fresno City Councilman Chris Mathys, by ostensibly attacking him as "100% pro-Trump and proud." The congressman's allies at the Congressional Leadership Fund, though, deployed even more money on their own ad campaign to sink Mathys, an investment that helped Valadao fend off the upstart 26-23 for the second spot in the general election. (Salas, the only Democrat on the ballot, easily took first with 45% of the vote.)
Despite the fact that Valadao had survived his brush with Mathys, Democrats still believed that Salas, who had established a moderate image in the legislature, would still put up a strong fight, especially since the state's independent Redistricting Commission had made the district a bit bluer. Republicans, though, did all they could to puncture Salas' centrist profile by trying to link him to a 2017 bill that increased the state's gas tax to fund road repairs even though he'd voted against that legislation.
Both parties were also aware that, since Democrats historically struggle to turn out their Central Valley base in non-presidential years, the electorate would be considerably more conservative than the one that delivered Biden his 13-point win. Altogether HMP, CLF, and their respective allies at the DCCC and NRCC collectively spent $22 million—more than they put into any other single House race in America last year.
Valadao ended up prevailing by a 3-point margin in a race that took weeks to call, though he actually ran slightly behind Republican Brian Dahle's 4-point win over Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom here. Valadao's victory made him, along with Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse, one of only two Republicans who'd favored impeachment to return for another term. Salas, however, quickly filed paperwork for a second go-round, and Inside Elections wrote in June that Democratic operatives were convinced he'd face little intra-party opposition.
The former assemblyman kicked off that new effort on Tuesday with a video portraying Valadao as a puppet for Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the "Trump lackey [and] insurrection apologist" who represents the neighboring 20th District. Salas himself also noted he'd be "the first ever-Central Valley Latino" to serve in the House. (Valadao is one of several people of Portuguese descent who has represented this heavily Latino area.) The NRCC, meanwhile, quickly made it clear it would reprise the same tax attacks it used against Salas last time.