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Nunes opponent pins hopes on shifting demographics in uphill battle

Nunes opponent pins hopes on shifting demographics in uphill battle
© Courtesy of Phil Arballo Campaign/Greg Nash

Local Fresno, Calif., businessman Phil Arballo is taking on one of the most powerful and well-funded House Republicans, Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTrump pushing to declassify document disputing intel findings on Russia: report Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 Democrat Arballo gains on Nunes: internal poll MORE, in November.

Nunes has more than $10 million cash on hand — a figure that would be competitive in even the most expensive races in the country — to spend in a medium-sized media market that he's represented for nearly 20 years.

But Arballo, who views the race as a referendum on Nunes, is dismissive of the incumbent’s financial advantages.

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"This is not a big media market,” Arballo told The Hill. “It's not going to take $20 million to win this district. He has to repair an image, that's what he is running up against. He's running up against an image that has been decimated in the last four years."

Nunes's profile has risen considerably during the Trump administration, as he's become one of the president's staunchest allies in Congress.

During the first two years of Trump's term, when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, Nunes led the powerful House Intelligence Committee through the much-publicized Mueller investigation, earning praise from the president and his allies and scorn from Democrats and other Trump critics.

But as Nunes's political star has risen, his electoral success has waned.

In 2018, Nunes beat Democratic challenger Andrew Janz by 5 percentage points, a fraction of the two previous elections that he won by 30 points or more.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the trend will lead to an Arballo victory. The Cook Political Report lists the seat as “likely Republican.”

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The national spotlight that Nunes enjoyed for much of the first half of Trump’s term was accompanied by a major fundraising boost, particularly from donations beyond California.

According to OpenSecrets, almost 62 percent of donations to Nunes this election cycle were from out of state, about double the percentage from four years ago.

For the 2020 election, Nunes has raised a whopping $16.3 million, compared to just under $3.2 million in 2016. For the midterms, he brought in $13.3 million.

That's left Arballo, whose nearly $2.6 million haul would otherwise be impressive for a newcomer, at a significant disadvantage less than three months before Election Day.

As another point of comparison, Janz spent $9 million when he lost to Nunes in the 2018 midterm elections that saw Democrats win back the House.

Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is cautiously optimistic about Arballo's chances in a district with shifting demographics that mirror changes that have decimated Republican lawmakers elsewhere in the state.

The district is now almost 50 percent Hispanic, according to census figures, and much of the change is due to growth in Fresno.

While Nunes is Hispanic — he is of Portuguese descent — the district has been growing more Mexican American like the rest of the state.

"We're 49 percent of this district. This is a majority-minority district and we need to start using our voting power," said Arballo. "I'm the first Latino candidate to come through a congressional race with the resources, and the power and the support to make a real run at a national office."

Arballo's fundraising and momentum have caught the eye of national Democrats, who relish the idea of taking down a top Trump ally in November.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), chairman of Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus's campaign arm, touted Arballo's background as the first in his family to graduate college, an accomplishment that reflects the lives of many voters in the district.

"He wants to give Central Valley families the representation and voice they deserve in Congress," said Cárdenas.

"While Devin Nunes is busy filing frivolous lawsuits during a pandemic, Phil is focused on uplifting the issues that matter most to the hardworking families in the Central Valley. Flipping this district will take hard work, but we know Phil is up to the challenge and he's building a formidable grassroot campaign to take on Nunes," added Cárdenas.

Nunes's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Arballo has also received nods from Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump knocks idea of a 'female socialist president' Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Watch live: Biden participates in HBCU homecoming MORE (D-Calif.), a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series MORE, and California Democratic Reps. Salud CarbajalSalud CarbajalMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Democratic Rep. Carbajal tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and Linda Sánchez, known for being a savvy recruiter for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In addition to the fundraising obstacle, the coronavirus pandemic has made it nearly impossible for Arballo to mount a traditional challenger’s campaign.

Arballo said his operation is relying on culturally competent outreach to target Hispanic residents, particularly those who haven’t voted before or who are new to the district. And like many Democratic candidates, Arballo is also counting on opposition to Trump to drive turnout in his favor.

Arballo is hoping that those who dislike Trump will also cast their ballots against Nunes.

"I think for our community, it literally is a matter of life and death," said Arballo.

"I believe in our Latino population that's going to come out and vote, because I believe they understand that with four more years of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE it's going to get 10 times worse for us," he added.