Beekeeper challenges powerful GOP

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Michael Eggman (D) is hoping he can create some buzz around his campaign to knock off Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.).

The beekeeper and almond farmer is running an uphill campaign against Denham, who won in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote against a highly touted Democratic candidate.

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Eggman will have to turn out many of the poor farming district’s large Hispanic population. It's in a part of the state where Democrats have struggled to rouse voters in non-presidential years.

Eggman faces a rough road to victory. But the district’s bumpy streets are part of why he decided to run in the first place.

“We live in the Garden of Eden in that valley. We feed the country, if not the world, and our roads are so bad we can't get our food from the farm to the trucks,” Eggman told The Hill in a recent interview, saying he has to under-fill his almond trucks to prevent spills because the roads are so rough in the area.

Infrastructural investment is a major theme of his campaign.

“We haven't done any significant water investment in 60 years. How are you going to expand your agriculture if you don't know if you're going to have enough water for your crops?” he asked.

“We need to create more water,” he argued, calling for investments in inland desalinization for brackish water and government funds for regional water reclamation projects.

Denham is known as a tenacious candidate and has advocated for immigration reform, painting himself as a centrist in the district. The congressman has a 3-to-1 cash advantage with more than $1.5 million in the bank, and won 57 percent of the vote in the recent all-party primary to Eggman’s 27 percent and 16 percent for another Democrat, though primaries tend to have lower Democratic turnout than general elections.

President Obama carried the swing district by a four-point margin in 2012.

Eggman is a first-time candidate, but he’s no stranger to politics — his older sister is in the California state assembly and he’s worked on her previous campaigns. They’ll be appearing on the same ballot this year, as her assembly district overlaps with much of the House seat.

He says that for the first time in his life, that means his surname will be a benefit.

“Eggman — that was a tough one to grow up with, you can imagine, koo koo kachoo,” he said, referencing The Beatles’ I am the Walrus. “But now I'm running for office it's serving me well. It's a hard one to forget.”

The last name is from his father, a “hard-headed Okie” in an area where many moved to during the Dust Bowl. His mother was “a proud Latina,” and he describes himself as a “Latino candidate with a gringo last name.”

That informs another big issue for Eggman: Immigration reform. Denham was the first House Republican to sign onto Democrats’ comprehensive reform bill that would give immigrants here illegally a pathway to citizenship, but Eggman argues his push is for political reasons, coming after earlier opposition.

“When he was running in that less Latino, more conservative district back in 2010… he advocated for deportation, that's what he advocated for. Now that he's in a more Latino district, now that it's more politically expedient for him to make more noise on 'that's how we solve the immigration problem,’” he says.

The National Republican Congressional Committee fired back, tying him to the national party.

“Jeff Denham has been a consistent supporter and a strong voice for immigration reform in Congress. Michael Eggman was recruited by Nancy Pelosi and is funded by radical environmentalists who want to shut off water to the Central Valley. The choice could not be more clear,” NRCC spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said.

But Eggman says he wants to act as a “bridge” to bring together environmentalists and farmers and charges Denham is the one outside the district’s mainstream.

“He's aligned himself with the most extreme elements of his party and the government shutdown proved that,” he said. “I’m Michael Eggman, a farmer. I happen to be a Democrat.”