In summary

A special election will be held to replace Devin Nunes, who announced that he is leaving Congress to run Donald Trump’s new social media site.

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The candidate who finishes U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes’ final term in California Congressional District 22 will likely support a re-election bid by former President Donald Trump, will want to defund schools that teach critical race theory, and vote for stricter voter laws.

That was the image that emerged Tuesday during a candidate’s forum in Fresno hosted by the Fresno County Republican Party. About 200 people attended.

A special election will be held to replace Nunes, R-Tulare, who announced in December that he is leaving Congress to run Donald Trump’s new social media site.

Four Republican candidates spoke during Tuesday’s forum — Connie Conway of Tulare, Elizabeth Heng of Fresno, Michael Maher of Visalia, and Matthew Stoll, also of Visalia. The winner will finish the rest of Nunes’ term, meaning they will be in Congress for about six months before the new legislative session.

Earlier this week, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig dropped out of the race for Nunes’ former seat and said he would run for California’s 5th Congressional District against incumbent Tom McClintock of Elk Grove.

The seat has been an important stronghold for the Republican party since Nunes had been one of the most outspoken supporters of Trump. However, the seat’s boundaries are changing in 2022 based on new congressional district maps.

Candidates said that they were part of the “red wave” of Republican candidates that they hope will run and win against the “radical left” and the “progressives’ agenda.”

While the candidates discussed various national GOP issues — from stricter voter rules to critical race theory in schools and abortion — they stressed their commitment to local issues in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, from water to job creation.

“I’m gonna be a fighter for the Valley,” said Heng, 37, a business owner from Fresno and former Capitol Hill staffer who once challenged U.S. Rep. Jim Costa of California’s 16th congressional district.

“I am tired of seeing the Valley being used as kind of a flyover state … they continue to neglect us,” Heng said.

“We need this special election to work together as a party to focus on the best strategy to win in the general election,” said Maher, 39. “It is not about us. It is about moving this party forward for the entire city.”

‘Big shoes to fill’

Nunes’ departure means that the future candidate will have about six months before the next congressional session.

The four candidates at Tuesday’s event said that they wanted to carry on where Nunes left off.

“I’m not here to replace Devin Nunes. I’m here to finish up what he started and continue to stay here and represent the exact same constituents,” said Maher, a veteran and business owner who said he plans to challenge Costa in the 21st district in the future.

Trump’s influence was felt at Tuesday’s event both in a cardboard cutout of the former president as well as in the support that a majority of the candidates expressed for Trump if he runs for president in 2024.

Three of the four candidates said they would definitely support Trump if he ran again.

Heng, who pointed out that she worked on Trump’s campaign in 2016, said she would wait to consider all possible candidates.

“I actually believe in having primaries and discussions and for people to earn the support of our elected candidates. And I think there are some great ones, including Trump, and there’s (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and other elected officials that have done a great job,” Heng said.

The seat has been an important stronghold for the Republican party. However, its boundaries are changing in 2022 based on new congressional district maps.

In a similar vein, all four candidates said they support an audit of the 2020 presidential elections results and emphasized implementing more restrictive voting measures.

“We need voter identification laws to protect our elections,” said Stoll, a veteran and business owner.

While only U.S. citizens can register to vote in California, Stoll said — without presenting any evidence — he thinks undocumented residents who can get driver’s licenses are a threat to elections.

“You don’t think that was a strategy and tactic? Of course it was. We need voter identification laws to protect our elections,” said Stoll.

According to an analysis by the Brennan Center, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting between January through December 2021. More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states during the 2021 legislative sessions.

His sentiment was shared by other GOP candidates.

“For God’s sake, we need voter IDs. You have to say who you are and that you belong in this country,” said Conway, 71, a former supervisor in Tulare County, Republican legislator, and Trump appointee.

Three of the four candidates said they were against abortion.

One candidate, Stoll, said that much like the argument against mask or vaccine mandates, he was pro-choice. “We each have to make a personal choice based on our circumstance(s),” said the 44-year-old. “I also don’t believe that we should inhibit someone … from being able to do what they feel they need to do.”

All four candidates said that they were against mandates for either masks or vaccines, especially those in schools.

On the subject of education, all four candidates said that they would support defunding schools at any level that teach critical race theory.

“They are injecting the progressive Marxist agenda into our schools, and they are polluting our children,” Stoll said.

Some candidates also said that they would support more school choice legislation.

“I’m in favor of legislation that has your tax dollar follow the student where you choose to send it,” Conway said.

‘Fighter for the Valley’

During Tuesday night’s candidate forum, all four candidates said they were committed to representing the Valley’s key needs.

“I will promise to you to make my No. 1 priority water. We’re all going to be talkers until we walk,” Stoll said.

Others said they support innovation in water management, such as desalination plants.

Candidates also discussed how they think the Republican party should move forward in California and encouraged a renewed engagement in local civic governance and involvement.

“The path forward is talking about the real issues at hand that matter to our community,” Heng said.

The sentiment was shared among other candidates and local party leaders.

“It’s not just about federal office. It’s about school boards. It’s about the state district,” Maher said. “We need everyone to step up.”

Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of Fresno County GOP, said it’s unlikely the county chapter would endorse any of the candidates due to the large number but acknowledged it was possible.

Another candidate forum is expected to take place in the coming months hosted by the Tulare County GOP.

The special election primary will be held on April 5.

Additional candidates that have announced campaigns for Nunes’ former seat include: Eric Garcia a Democrat from Clovis, and Lourin Hubbard, a Democrat from Fresno.

Jan. 20 was the deadline for candidates to file for the election with a signature petition and Feb. 10 is the deadline to register with filing fees.

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Melissa Montalvo

Melissa covers childhood poverty in the central San Joaquin Valley for The Fresno Bee in partnership with CalMatters' California Divide project. She is a Report for America corps member. Montalvo, a bilingual...