By tenths, Republican John Duarte beats Democrat Adam Gray in close congressional race

Andy Alfaro/aalfaro@modbee.com

A Republican farmer and businessman defeated a Democratic Assemblyman in one of the nation’s closest congressional elections.

Modesto’s John Duarte squeezed past Adam Gray, D-Merced, in California’s 13th Congressional District, the Associated Press projected on Friday night.

Just moments earlier, Gray said he conceded to Duarte in the left-leaning Central Valley district.

Duarte, 56, will join a slim Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. As of Friday night, the GOP was projected to claim 221 seats. Democrats were expected to take 213. There is just one other uncalled House race; a Republican is leading.

The Duarte Nursery co-founder had 50.2% of the votes with about 99% counted when the AP called the race. Duarte, whose team had been prepared to declare his win on Monday, was four-tenths of a point — 565 votes — ahead of Gray, after Fresno County updated its ballot counts.

Voters have chosen me to be their congressman and I am honored to be able to go in and fight for the 13th district,” Duarte told The Bee on Monday at a hotel near Capitol Hill, where the second round of New Member Orientation was this week.

The back-and-forth race began with Gray, 45, ahead on election night. Duarte took over for almost a week. Then Gray led briefly. Duarte emerged on top and held his place through now.

John Duarte

Duarte stressed his desire to increase water access for farmers and Valley families, drill more American oil and tackle inflation with more scrutiny over government spending.

Coming from a family of Central Valley farmers, Duarte started his plant-nursery business in Hughson with his brother. From kitchen-table businessman to congressional campaign, the Republican said his family — parents, brother, wife and four kids — helped him throughout his pursuits.

Previously, Duarte rallied farmers and conservatives around him while fighting a lawsuit surrounding environmental regulations. A judge ruled in 2016 that he violated a provision of the Clean Water Act known as “Waters of the United States” by plowing over protected wetlands on his property.

The California Republican said he had planted winter wheat on the Tehama County field just as previous property owners had done. He and his allies said that it was a case of the government interfering with agriculture. Government officials said that the field had not been plowed in more than two decades and that Duarte needed a permit before ripping up its seasonal wetlands that served as a habitat for plants and animals.

He said he settled before going to a trial over penalties in 2017 to avoid expenses that would jeopardize his business and workers.

Duarte said he hopes his perspective as one of a few farmers and businessmen in Congress leads to more support for Central Valley needs.

“A lot of that simply involves appreciating what it takes to run a business, to make a payroll,” Duarte said, “and knowing what it takes to produce a crop, to own a family-farming business, to expand that business, to know when to take risks and to weather through some of the risks.”

Both Duarte and Gray have protested water policy in Sacramento. Gray has represented Merced, where he was born and raised, in the Assembly since 2012. A self-proclaimed “radical centrist,” the moderate Democrat has championed water access and public safety, such as through securing funds for Merced’s VIPER program to combat gang violence.

Gray teaches at UC Merced, the university where he pushed for the establishment of a medical school program.

“Whether elected or not, I will never stop fighting for the Valley,” Gray said in a statement about his concession.

A close election

Formed through the once-a-decade redistricting process, California’s 13th Congressional District runs from Lathrop past Coalinga in a purple stretch of Central Valley farmland. Voters there would have backed President Joe Biden by 11 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The race in the 13th went from leaning toward Democrats to being a toss-up to favoring Republicans in the eyes of many independent analysts. They all agreed that the election, one of the last ones to be called, would be close.

While a predicted nationwide “red wave” never came into fruition in the 2022 midterms, disdain for Democrats in Sacramento and Washington D.C. had a lot of San Joaquin Valley voters supporting Republicans, per interviews prior to the election. Historical voting trends pointed to issues Democrats would face there.

In other recently-called California races, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, defeated Democratic Dr. Kermit Jones in the 3rd Congressional District. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, beat challenger Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, in the district south of the 13th.

Duarte said he will start his term by networking with a lot of California congressmen like Valadao, another farmer-businessman who “represents a very similar district with very similar bipartisan kind of needs as what the 13th is.”

He hopes to work with committees on agriculture and natural resources to bolster American production of such goods, saying “until we have abundance, we’re not going to have affordability.”

“That’s not a partisan issue,” Duarte said. “That’s just a reality that American families are running up against right now.”