Republican John Duarte says he thinks he will win uncalled California House race

Republican John Duarte, a farmer from Modesto, told The Bee on Monday that he thinks that he will win California’s 13th Congressional District.

“I am honored to be able to go in and fight for the 13th District,” Duarte said at a hotel near Capitol Hill, where the second round of New Member Orientation is this week.

The Associated Press has yet to project who will win between Duarte and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, in one of the nation’s two uncalled races for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican John Duarte, left, and Democrat Adam Gray, right, are shown.
Republican John Duarte, left, and Democrat Adam Gray, right, are shown.

The Duarte Nursery operator had 50.2% of the votes with 99% counted as of Monday night. Duarte was four-tenths of a point — 593 votes — ahead of Gray.

Most of the uncounted votes come from areas in Fresno and San Joaquin counties, where Duarte’s campaign is confident the counts will return in his favor. He stopped short of declaring victory over Gray, whom he has known for a long time and worked with before on protests over water policy in Sacramento.

The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman predicted a Duarte win on Nov. 22.

The race in the 13th — a purple stretch of Central Valley farmland from Lathrop past Coalinga that coalesced through the once-a-decade redistricting process — shifted in the eyes of independent analysts from favoring Democrats to being a toss-up after the June primary. Some said Duarte had an edge ahead of election night.

The toss-up election started with Gray, 45, leading on election night. Then Duarte, 56, took over for almost a week. Briefly, Gray pulled ahead. Duarte emerged on top and has been there since last week.

Gray’s campaign set up a Federal Election Commission committee for a recount two weeks ago.

A Duarte win would contribute to a slim GOP majority in the U.S. House. As of Monday night, Republicans were projected to claim 220 seats and Democrats were expected to take 213. The race in the 13th and one other have yet to be called.

The Republican said his experience working with people across the Central Valley through his family’s plant-nursery business shaped his view of what residents needed. That is getting water on the farms, drilling American oil and curbing inflation onset by government policy.

“These are real simple things,” he said. “But apparently we have to do a lot of education on why these things matter to so many Americans who aren’t being weighed in when a lot of these decisions are being made.”

Duarte has had personal experience with confronting federal policy. A decade ago, he mounted a bid against federal environmental regulations that rallied farmers and conservatives around him.

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. Government officials said the Tehama County field had not been plowed in more than two decades and Duarte needed a permit before ripping up its seasonal wetlands, which served as a habitat for plants and animals.

Duarte and allies said it was a case of government interfering with agriculture. He said he had planted winter wheat there just as previous property owners had done.

The Duarte Nursery co-founder settled before going to a trial over penalties in 2017. He said he settled to avoid expenses that would jeopardize his family business and workers.

Coming from a family of Central Valley farmers, Duarte started his business in Hughson with his brother. Early on, he worked as a field representative for it, talking to people up and down the Valley. He never thought a business started at his kitchen table would bring him to D.C., but he said his family’s support would enable him to travel back and forth from his home in the Central Valley.

Like Duarte, Gray has been an advocate for allocating and keeping more water in the Central Valley. Born and raised in Merced, the Democrat has represented the area in the Assembly for a decade. Gray also teaches at UC Merced, the university where he pushed for the establishment of a medical school program.

Voters in the 13th would have backed President Joe Biden by 11 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

While the projected “red wave” never materialized nationwide in the 2022 midterms, disdain for Democrats in Sacramento and Washington had some Valley voters favoring Republicans, per interviews prior to the election. A culmination of historical voting trends showed headwinds Democrats faced in the Central Valley.

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

Duarte, looking to join them, hopes to work with Valadao, another farmer-businessman, on Valley issues.

“I bring a unique perspective,” he said. “I think it’s gonna work out.”