On an unusually cool morning in the Central Valley, Sen. Alex Padilla rallied campaign volunteers, urging them to knock on doors and phone voters to promote a Democratic candidate in one of the most competitive congressional districts in the nation.
“We’re about to turn this House seat blue!” Padilla told dozens of supporters. “There’s a reason the Republican Party is so scared and pouring tons of money here — because they see what’s happening.”
Padilla, California’s first Latino senator, who was appointed to the seat when Kamala Harris became vice president, will appear on the November ballot twice — to fill the remainder of Harris’ Senate term and for a full six-year period in office.
Padilla’s Saturday morning appearance at a nondescript union hall — stumping for Rudy Salas, a state assemblyman trying to unseat GOP Rep. David Valadao — was much like the rest of his campaign: focused on boosting the prospects of Democrats in California and other states with a substantial number of Latino voters.
“I’m not going to take my own race for granted,” Padilla said, between bites of lemon curd-topped pancakes during an interview the prior day at a Pacoima cafe that was once a seedy bar near where he was raised. (He now lives in Porter Ranch.)
But Padilla hasn’t aired a single general election television ad, nor has he overtly campaigned for himself.
“I’d much rather go back with a Democratic majority, right? How do I maximize my chances of being effective and impactful?” Padilla said.
In addition to Salas, Padilla has hit the campaign trail with House candidate Christy Smith in northern Los Angeles County and Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado. He plans appearances in coming days with Rep. Katie Porter and House candidate Jay Chen in Orange County, as well as with Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by 23 points, so there’s little doubt that Padilla will win reelection. Surveys show the senator with double-digit leads over his GOP rival, Mark Meuser.
“We’re polling, we’re tracking the numbers. They look very good,” Padilla said.
Padilla, 49, also has an exponential fundraising advantage, having banked $11.6 million as of Sept. 30, compared with Meuser’s $835,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Meuser said his prospects are buoyed by his reputation among GOP voters as well as by social media.
“The internet is the great equalizer,” Meuser said in a phone interview.
Meuser said he initially planned to run for California secretary of state — as he did in 2018, when Padilla beat him by 29 percentage points — but decided to run for Senate after viewing the government’s response to the pandemic.
“It just became so clear that we need somebody who has an understanding of the Constitution,” he said. “The longer we got involved in COVID, the more it became clear that this is where my unique set of experiences as a constitutional scholar, as a constitutional attorney would be best served.”
Meuser graduated from Oak Brook College of Law, an unaccredited Christian correspondence school that has an impressive bar exam passage rate. He thinks his legal work will boost his campaign, such as his part in stopping California Democrats’ attempts to keep President Trump off the state ballot in 2020 and election officials’ efforts to block radio host Larry Elder from appearing on the 2021 recall ballot.
“I have good name recognition in the grassroots communities in California,” said Meuser, an Ironman competitor and avid reader who was born in Huntington Beach.
“If they engage and show up to vote, I think we have a really good chance of winning,” he said.
Meuser, 48, prompted controversy last week when he compared his decision to seek office in California to proselytizing in Africa.
“If you wanted to be a missionary, do you go to the Bible Belt? Or do you go to the dark continent of Africa?” Meuser said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “If you want to help the people, you go to where there’s the biggest needs.”
Meuser said that he was making an analogy and declined comment about criticism that the remark was racist.
Padilla denounced the comments as “appalling and offensive,” words that echoed his Oct. 10 criticism of three Los Angeles City Council members and a labor leader after they were heard on a recording making racist comments.
Padilla’s call for the Latino Democrats to resign — notably then-council President Nury Martinez, a longtime ally and high school classmate — led other elected officials to make a similar demand.
“It took maybe a split second to think, if it was anybody else, what would I say?” Padilla said. “And I happen to know these people, considered them friends, but it’s wrong. And so my response was my response and I felt I had to speak up.”
Dan Schnur, who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley, said that although practically every Democrat in the nation has now called for the council members’ resignations, that wasn’t true in the immediate aftermath of the recording’s release.
“For the first day or so, most politicians were being very cautious. It wasn’t until Padilla called for them to step down that the rest of the world fell in line,” said Schnur, who unsuccessfully ran against Padilla for secretary of state in 2014. “He deserves a great deal of credit for being the first prominent political leader without a vested interest in the outcome to take such a strong stance.”
The son of a short-order line cook and a housekeeper who immigrated from Mexico, Padilla and his two siblings were raised in an impoverished community beset by drug dealers and pimps. His parents emphasized education, volunteer work at their Catholic church and baseball — activities that Padilla said kept him busy and out of trouble. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned home to work in his field.
Padilla’s life story resonates with voters.
“I love the fact that he came from a working family and has worked his way up,” said Cathee Romley, a 65-year-old Bakersfield retiree.
His engineering career was upended by Proposition 187 — the successful 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny many taxpayer-funded services to immigrants in the country illegally. Padilla was part of a generation of young Latinos in Los Angeles spurred into politics by the proposition, which was later largely struck down by the courts.
Californians see the results of his tenure in their daily lives — the ban on disposable plastic grocery bags and the posting of calorie counts at chain restaurants. (The latter was prompted by Padilla’s mother being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.)
After Padilla was elected secretary of state, he was credited with increasing voting access but faced bipartisan criticism over a no-bid contract for voter education with a firm with strong ties to Democrats. Although his time in office was not blemish-free, he avoided major pitfalls that have tripped up fellow San Fernando Valley Democrats.
“Alex is pretty much a Boy Scout,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist who has never worked for Padilla.
As Raji Brar, a business owner and community leader, introduced Padilla at the Bakersfield event, she noted that his presence in the onetime GOP bastion gives local Democrats “validation.”
“We don’t have the numbers a U.S. senator would usually care about. We may not even be necessary for his win,” Brar, 46, said. “But it shows that what we do here matters.”