NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rep. Denham's Immigration Stance May Charm Latino Voters


President Trump's increasingly aggressive rhetoric on immigration may be making things harder for one Republican congressman in California's rural Central Valley. His name is Jeff Denham, and he's trying to get re-elected in a district that went for Hillary Clinton two years ago. The number of Latino voters in his district is rising. But as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, Denham is hoping his moderate position on immigration will help him out.

JAKE WENGER: This is our walnut huller-dehydrator.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's harvest time at Jake Wenger's walnut orchard outside of Modesto. He's the fourth generation of his family to farm here. He's also a vice president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, which endorsed incumbent Republican Jeff Denham.

WENGER: There isn't in my opinion a Valley representative in Congress who's done a better job than Jeff Denham in fighting for water issues.

JAFFE: Water is Jake Wenger's top issue, as it is for all the farmers in the 10th Congressional District. But Wenger also likes Jeff Denham's moderate position on immigration. Latinos make up nearly 45 percent of the population here, and they're the backbone of the agricultural workforce.

WENGER: If you're here and you've been working, there's no reason anybody should be sent home. I mean, it just - it's a ridiculous thought.

JAFFE: Last spring, Denham tried to force a vote on the House floor on a package of immigration bills that included increased border security but also a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers who were brought to the United States as children. Denham says that for him, immigration reform is a personal issue.

WENGER: Not only is my wife Hispanic, but my kids are now considered Hispanic, too, just because they're - you know, my wife and I being married.

JAFFE: In the end, Denham was outmaneuvered by House GOP leadership. The bills that came to the floor were more conservative than the ones he'd proposed, and they failed. Denham's Democratic opponent, Josh Harder, was glad to rub that in during a televised debate sponsored by the Turlock Journal and Univision 19.


JOSH HARDER: You have again and again co-sponsored bills. And then every time you get the call from your party leadership to drop it, you do.

JAFFE: Denham's failed efforts no longer impress Juan Vasquez. He was once a registered Republican and voted for Denham. But everything changed in 2016.

JUAN VASQUEZ: I was a Trump supporter until he started calling people like me rapists, you know, criminals. There's no way I could support something like that.

JAFFE: Since Trump's election, an additional 8,200 Latinos have registered to vote in this district. Jeff Denham won by fewer votes than that in 2016. And while Latinos tend to vote Democratic, historically they haven't turned out in high numbers. Juan Vasquez knows that well since he's now on the Central Committee of the Stanislaus County Democratic Party. But he thinks it might be different this time because people in his community keep asking him about voting.

VASQUEZ: Their response was like, I want to vote for people who will stop Trump and his agenda. And I was like, OK, well, if that's what you want, you need to, you know, vote for Democrats (laughter).

JAFFE: Jeff Denham doesn't think that Trump will drag him down. Even though Democrats have a slight registration advantage, voters here keep re-electing him.

JEFF DENHAM: I think all things are local. You know, people know who I am and know what I'm fighting for.

JAFFE: But Democrat Josh Harder argues that there's a disconnect between Denham's moderate reputation and his actions in Congress.

HARDER: Like all of these other issues - health care and immigration - he says one thing back in the district and then votes with his party 98 percent of the time.

JAFFE: Though some polls show Harder with a small advantage, many analysts call this race a toss-up. The outcome could depend on how many of the growing number of Latino voters actually cast ballots. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "PERFECT INSTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."