Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government MORE (R-Calif.) is fighting for his political life in this fall’s election — and hoping that his efforts to move immigration reform will convince his constituents to send him back to Washington for a fifth term.
Denham, who won 52 percent of the vote in his last reelection race, represents a district in California’s Central Valley that is 40 percent Hispanic, and that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE won by 3 percentage points over President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE in 2016.
It’s considered a toss-up race, but the winds are blowing against Denham this cycle as dozens of Republicans scramble to escape what is expected to be a sizeable blue wave in November.
Fifty-two Republicans are pressing their leadership to allow a vote on legislation to help immigrants brought to the country as children, known as "Dreamers," despite opposition from conservative Republicans. Of those, about 15 come from districts where Dreamers are certain to play a top role in November's election.
Denham is one of the most high-profile of these Republicans.
“This is one of those hot-button issues that's important to my district,” he said.
Denham is specifically leading the charge for what's known as a Queen of the Hill rule, which would allow the House to debate and vote on four separate immigration bills. Under Queen of the Hill, the bill with the most votes past a 50 percent threshold would be adopted.
Denham has also thrown his weight behind the USA Act, a bill that would give a path to citizenship to 1.8 million people. It also would include $25 billion in border security funding.
It's unlikely the House will move forward with any immigration bill before November, but Denham's proposal is the only measure that even stands a chance at serious consideration.
It has received near-unanimous support from Democrats as well as from 52 House Republicans.
That's gotten Denham attention he’ll need come November.
This isn’t the first time Denham has been in the position of taking on his own party’s leadership over immigration.
In 2013, Denham was the first Republican to join Democrats in supporting the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform package.
That happened ahead of an election where Republicans gained a net 13 House seats from Democrats and illegal immigration was a hot-button campaign issue.
Beyond his district’s demographics, Denham's personal experience with the immigration system has influenced his policy positions.
He helped steer his Mexican father-in-law on the path to citizenship, an experience he said “made the issue very, very real.”
In talking about it, he speaks of the importance of people legally entering the country.
“It is such a difficult process that many ignore the process or try to circumvent it through overstaying visas or never coming out of the shadows,” he said.
While Denham supports legislation that would help Dreamers, he also backed Kate's Law, a House-passed bill that would increase penalties for illegal re-entry into the country, and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, legislation to punish so-called sanctuary cities. Both measures were opposed by Democrats and most pro-immigration groups.
He casts himself as not afraid to work with or take on his party.
“We’ve had a lot of difficult conversations about it,” he said of his discussions about immigration with GOP leaders.
“I’m very vocal. My goal is not to surprise anybody but to push them along, and I’ve let them know what I’m fighting for and why I’m fighting for it,” he said.
Denham is a reliable conservative on most other issues, something that's helped him in the House, but that will also make him a bigger target for Democratic opponents.
He has plenty ready to take him on in this year’s election.
Under California's jungle primary system, all candidates from all parties compete with each other in a primary election on June 5. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election in November.
So far, Denham's Democratic opponents include Michael Eggman, who's lost twice to Denham in the general election; former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño, who’s picked up some key endorsements; and venture capitalist Josh Harder.
While the plurality of Democratic candidates will help Denham in the primary — a three-way race will dilute the Democratic vote ensuring Denham a spot in the final two — the final round in November will be a challenge for most Republicans in competitive districts.
Still, Denham does have a lead. An early April poll released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed him up 3 points from his Democratic challengers.
California Democrats, especially Hispanics, will run an immigration-heavy message that will be more challenging for GOP incumbents who haven't embraced the issue, like California Republican Reps. Duncan HunterDuncan HunterTrump denies Gaetz asked him for blanket pardon Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP Trust, transparency, and tithing is not enough to sustain democracy MORE and Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherNow someone wants to slap a SPACE Tax on Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Former Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building MORE.
“The bottom line is when the Republican leadership takes no action on those things, don't allow us to debate it on the floor, don't allow us the opportunity to even vote on these important issues, I think that they make it hard on their candidates to actually get the votes,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus's campaign arm, BOLD PAC.
Denham knows that his party’s leadership is toxic with voters whose top political priority is a fix for the Dreamers.
GOP members who support Denham's Queen of the Hill rule have increasingly hinted at pushing forward what's known as a discharge petition, which could force a floor vote despite opposition from GOP leadership.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol 'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot MORE (R-Calif.) downplayed the possibility earlier this month that Denham or other members in similar situations would push for a discharge petition.
“I don't believe discharge petitions are the way to legislate,” McCarthy told The Hill. “I don't believe members in the conference believe that, either.”
Those pressing for a vote say they are losing patience.
“I hope we can do it in a constructive way, I hope we can work together and find that compromise that everyone knows is out there. But, yes, a lot of us here are losing patience and we have all lost a lot of time,” said Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloNation's fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead MORE (R-Fla.), who like Denham is in a toss-up race.
Denham also said the clock is ticking.
“I would say patience is growing thin and weeks on the calendar are starting to pass by,” he said.