Reporting from Fresno and Lemoore, Calif. — The two Republicans at the top of California's November ticket fanned out across the Central Valley this week, denouncing government dysfunction and asserting that their business experience would help them rescue the region's unemployed workers, small firms and struggling family farms.
"I have spent a lot of time in the valley, and what is going on here due to lack of water is a humanitarian crisis," gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman told scores of supporters on a recent afternoon in a sweltering feed warehouse in Lemoore, about 30 miles south of Fresno. "It just breaks my heart."
A hundred miles south at a technology company in Bakersfield, Senate nominee Carly Fiorina ticked off statistics about the slowing recovery and Kern County's unemployment rate — contending that incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer had failed the region by neglecting its water woes and by embracing what Fiorina described as the failed federal stimulus program.
"She has walked away from every opportunity to help," Fiorina said.
She and Whitman have made a combined 48 stops in the state's agricultural hub, traditionally a Republican stronghold. Even after winning their respective contests in June's primary election, both candidates have continued to highlight the region's troubles.
Whitman has peppered the area with billboards and television and radio ads while challenging her Democratic opponent, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, to debate her in Fresno. Fiorina has dared Boxer to "meet me in Mendota," a farm town with chronically high unemployment.
Both Republicans have cited the region's unemployment rate — which hovers around 16% in Fresno, Kern and Kings counties — as evidence of what they view as the state's unfriendly business climate and the failure of Democratic leadership in Washington and Sacramento.
Although the Central Valley was viewed as solid Republican turf two decades ago, an influx of voters from around Sacramento and the Bay Area and an increase in Latino voters have changed that.
Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at Cal State Fresno, said the candidates' visits served the dual purpose of helping to energize the region's Republicans while also appealing to independents and disaffected conservative Democrats.
"In a state like California, if they don't do that, they don't win," Holyoke said.
In Fresno County, where Fiorina recently staged a news conference with two large tractors and boxes of grapes as props, 41.3% of registered voters are Democrats; 40.9% are Republicans. Barack Obama beat Republican presidential nominee John McCain 50% to 48% there in 2008 after double-digit wins by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Boxer lost Fresno County by 6 percentage points in 2004, but California's Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein won by 12 percentage points in 2000 and by 7.5 percentage points in 2006.
One way Fiorina and Whitman have courted valley voters is through a persistent emphasis on water issues. Though last winter's rains ended a three-year drought in the state, pumping restrictions imposed to protect the delta smelt remain a heated campaign theme. Signs dotting the region's highways beside barren fields proclaim a "Congress-created Dust Bowl." Other signs nearby bear Boxer's name with a slash through the "o."
On Tuesday, surrounded by saddles and bags of feed in Lemoore, Whitman vowed to "get those pumps turned on" and to work on increasing water storage capacity. She chided the Legislature for voting Monday to delay a water bond measure from November until 2012.
"I was so disappointed because this decision to push the water bond back was just politics as usual in Sacramento," she said.
Fiorina has accused Boxer of allying herself with "extreme environmentalists" while praising Feinstein, who drafted but then backed away from legislation that would have eased some endangered-species protections to send more water to San Joaquin Valley farms. At times, Fiorina has used the issue to deflect Boxer's attacks on her record as head of Hewlett-Packard Co., where she laid off more than 30,000 workers.
Asked in June in Beverly Hills about Boxer's criticism of her record at HP, Fiorina pivoted to the Central Valley: "Forty-six thousand people lost their jobs because Barbara Boxer believed that a fish was more important than those 46,000 people and their families," she replied.
On Tuesday, Whitman decried the loss of 95,000 jobs across the state that she attributed to the lack of water.
Fiorina and Whitman aides said their respective figures were based on studies from early 2009 by Richard Howitt, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis. But those numbers vastly overstate the case: Howitt said in an interview this week that he revised the figures significantly downward a few months later.