It took a mujer to do what a Fresno school board member and a Kern County Supervisor could not accomplish: Win the heavily Latino 14th state Senate District.
That is the task that Sanger City Councilmember Melissa Hurtado handled when the final precincts were counted during the night and released before the sun came up on Wednesday. Those results showed her capturing 52.1 percent of the votes in the district that stretched from Fresno to Bakersfield to Arvin.
Republican incumbent Andy Vidak, a cherry farmer from Hanford, collected 47.9 percent of the vote in his effort to win a second, four-year term after surprising Democrats with a 2013 victory over Kern County Supervisor Leticia Pérez in a special election that was called to fill a vacancy created when Michael Rubio stepped down citing family reasons and took a lobbying position with Chevron.
While there are many more ballots that remain to be tallied, I am optimistic that our trend toward victory will continue.
Melissa Hurtado, leading the race for the 14th state Senate district
Hurtado is the first Latina elected to the state Senate from the San Joaquín Valley.
Her campaign has not declared victory as of Wednesday afternoon because of the outstanding votes to be counted, but is “optimistic about the outcome.”
In a press statement Wednesday afternoon, Hurtado was cautious about celebrating too soon.
“It has been a hard fought campaign, and I am proud of the support we have won. I want to thank all of the volunteers who came out and walked precincts or phoned for me and the voters who put their trust in me,” said Hurtado. “While there are many more ballots that remain to be tallied, I am optimistic that our trend toward victory will continue.”
She might be joined in Sacramento by Assemblymember Anna Caballero, who lives in Salinas, and has a razor-thin 50.5 percent-to-49.5 percent lead in the 12th state Senate race against Madera County Supervisor Rob Poythress, a Republican.
The math was always there for a Democratic win in a district that is 71.16 percent Latino and has a 47.38 percent-to-2.45 percent edge over Republicans among registered voters. Hillary Clinton carried the district with 58.7 percent of the vote in 2016.
However, Vidak finished with 54.1 percent of the vote in the June primary while Hurtado squeezed into the general election with 23.2 percent of the vote in a field that included two other Democrats.
Although some ballots remain to be counted, Vidak’s 38,873 votes in Tuesday’s election is just slightly higher than the 37,918 primary election votes he received.
As in previous elections, Vidak won big in Kings and Tulare counties but lost in Fresno and Kern counties. This time, Hurtado managed to get a bigger chunk of votes in those counties to offset Vidak’s base in the district’s rural areas.
In the weeks leading to the general election, Hurtado expressed confidence in her strategy to visit each of the district’s 19 cities and the portions of Bakersfield and Fresno that are located within the district.
She attended festivals, rode along with police officers and held meetings. She even walked in 104-degree July weather in Porterville.
She was painted by Vidak supporters in television ads as a San Francisco liberal who wants to take away the Valley’s water and raise taxes.
Hurtado, who attended Sacramento State and works as a health advocate, also got a boost when Democrats realized there was an opportunity to wrest the seat from the Republican column.
Through Oct. 20, the Hurtado campaign spent $1.7 million while Vidak’s group spent $1.5 million. That comes out to more than $40 a vote for Hurtado.
Hurtado, the daughter of Latino immigrants from Texas, also had the backing of elected officials like Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and her new boss, state Senate pro tem Toni Atkins.
Atkins rode into Fresno on the Democratic Party Blue Wave tour of 27 cities the weekend before the election.
Atkins didn’t predict a victory, but said internal polling showed a close race.
“We know that it’s close because they’re worried,” said Atkins. “Let me be clear, this is a tough race. We are close. We have seen the numbers.”
Assemblymember Joaquín Arámbula called on voters to elect Hurtado so that he could get more support for legislation that benefits the Valley.
Tuesday night when just a trickle of votes had been counted, Arámbula introduced Hurtado as “your new state Senator.”
Hurtado did not give any indication of a winner that night.
“It’s going to be a long night,” she told supporters at the election watch event organized by Fresno City Council President Esmeralda Soria. “I want to make sure we get good-paying jobs and access to health care.”
Hurtado got to know people’s stories during her visits throughout the district and used that contact to fuel her efforts.
Former Congressional and gubernatorial candidate Amanda Rentería praised Hurtado’s commitment in a Facebook post.
“This win is why I believe in our future. I have loved being witness, friend, and cheerleader for Melissa!” wrote Rentería. “A lot of folks counted her out, didn’t jump in to endorse her, believed she was too young, etc. etc. But, she kept going and going ... for all the right reasons.”
Rentería recalled speaking with Hurtado last week when the candidate was returning from walking in Avenal.
“This is tough! It’s hard to hear how much folks are hurting. They are worried, scared, and forgotten. No one goes to their doors. Some just want to talk to me to hear me say that it’s going to get better,” said Hurtado.
“The hard thing is that I can’t help, if I’m not there and if they are represented by people who don’t see them. But I also know, how hard it is for them to get to the polls or even think about voting when they are just trying to stay above water. It’s hard to hear it and it gets to me. This weekend it got to me because it shouldn’t be this way in the Valley.”
Rentería “got choked up remembering those conversations and knowing that the Valley is blessed to have people who really care and step up to run.”