Stark contrast emerges in fight for California US House seat

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FILE - U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021. Voters in California's sprawling farm belt are filling a congressional seat left vacant after Nunes resigned to lead former President Donald Trump's media company. (Al Drago/Pool Photo via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES – Former Trump administration appointee Connie Conway is headed to a June runoff election for a vacant U.S. House seat in California, and what makes her stand out is unusual in politics: If she wins, she intends to serve just months in Congress.

If elected, Conway plans to serve only as a caretaker for the remainder of the term of former Rep. Devin Nunes, who resigned the 22nd District seat to lead former President Donald Trump’s social media company. If victorious in the June runoff, she’d serve only until early January.

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The 71-year-old Conway, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly and a one-time county supervisor, said in an interview Wednesday that her decision reflects practical politics. With redrawn House districts across California, Nunes’ old territory was broken apart and absorbed elsewhere. In the new districts, her congressman is House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become speaker if the GOP seizes power in November’s midterm elections.

A neighboring district is where another Republican, Rep. David Valadao, is seeking reelection.

“I’m not going to challenge another Republican,” Conway said. Moreover, she didn’t want to be a “steppingstone candidate” -- someone only building name recognition in advance of another run for office.

“It’s not a steppingstone. It’s an avocation for me. The district needs representation, and it doesn’t have it now,” she added.

It might take days to determine who is awarded the second runoff slot in the Central California district, a region sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl because of its vast agricultural production.

Because no candidate was able to claim a majority of the vote Tuesday and win outright, only the top two finishers advance to a runoff that will coincide with the statewide primary election June 7.

In preliminary returns, Conway had 35% of the vote among six candidates, with Democrat Lourin Hubbard in the second spot, with about 20%. Mail-in ballots can arrive as late as April 12, provided they are postmarked by Tuesday, the day of the election.

If the vote trend holds, it could set up a showdown between Conway, the conservative former Trump appointee, and the progressive Hubbard, who supports universal health care and a pathway to citizenship for millions of people who entered the country illegally. He also opposes a wall on the border with Mexico, a signature Trump project.

A matchup with Conway would be a “quintessential political fight between Trump conservatism versus the progressive movement,” Hubbard, 33, a manager for the state Department of Water Resources, said in an interview.

He tweeted Tuesday, “A black man from a working class background isn’t supposed to shock the state. But that’s exactly what I did. ... On June 7th we’re going to shock the nation!”

In a Republican-leaning district that supported Trump in the 2020 election, Conway's first-place finish Tuesday leaves her in a strong position to capture the post in the runoff.

Conway served as the California executive director of the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency during the Trump administration, and she says she would support Trump if he ran for president in 2024.

Others trailing Conway and Hubbard included Eric Garcia, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, and Republican Matt Stoll, a former Navy combat pilot and small business owner.

Garcia and Stoll also are running in the June statewide primary in a newly drawn district — the 21st — that includes a slab of Nunes’ territory. In that race, they will be taking on Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, and it’s obvious they hope a victory on Nunes’ old turf will be a springboard to winning the new district.

A runoff would be politically tricky for either of them. In that case, a candidate’s name would appear twice on the June ballot — once in a runoff for the vacant Nunes seat, and a second time in a new House district for the term that starts in 2023. Voters easily could be confused seeing the same name twice.

Hubbard, like Conway, only is seeking the unexpired Nunes term.

Conway shares conservative values with Nunes and a dedication to water and agriculture issues critical to the region's economy. However, Nunes was known in Congress as a pugilistic defender of Trump and his agenda, and Conway adds they have different styles.

The election for the vacant seat has been largely ignored nationally as Democrats and Republicans fixate on midterm elections that will determine control of Congress in 2023.

While the contest for the vacant Nunes seat has been an afterthought nationally, California is at the center of the fight for the House. There are about a half-dozen highly competitive districts on the June ballot. Such contests are a rarity in the liberal-minded state, where Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate in the Legislature and have a 42-10 advantage in the congressional delegation.

If Conway triumphs in June, her time in Congress would be brief. But it might not be her last campaign.

“I don’t know what will happen going forward,” Conway said, when asked about her future after a possible congressional stint. “You don’t rule anything out.”

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