Is this the year?

With more experience and money, Audrey Denney returns to challenge Doug LaMalfa for Congress

Audrey Denney (Photo courtesy of Audrey for Congress)
Election 2020

The last time voters saw Audrey Denney’s name on a general-election ballot, she had been a candidate for a mere nine months. Despite her lack of political experience and age (34 at the time), Denney gave then-three-term Republican Doug LaMalfa the biggest challenge he’d faced for his seat as U.S. Representative for California’s Congressional District 1. She lost by 9 points.

“Honestly, I can barely remember the woman that I was in January of 2018,” said Denney during a recent break from working the phones at her downtown campaign office.

Two days after the election, the Camp Fire started. Between that local disaster (for which Denney was on the ground volunteering and advocating for residents), the current local disaster of the pandemic coupled with wildfires, running for national office and various personal trauma (surgery, the unexpected deaths of two friends), the last two years have felt like a lifetime to Denney.

“I have learned so much and grown so much, personally and professionally,” she said, which has made her even more determined as she’s set her sights on ending LaMalfa’s eight-year run in Congress. “It feels like I used to be a wet clay bowl, and this experience has fired me and now I can hold water and I have purpose.”

Sowing seeds

Denney’s campaign has raised more than $1.3 million so far, nearly half a million more than LaMalfa.

If she is going to overcome the nine point gap from 2018, she’s going to have to put a lot of that money toward building support in Shasta County. In 2018, her numbers in the other two of the big-three counties in District 1 were impressive, with advantages of roughly 7,000 and 5,000 votes in Butte and Nevada counties, respectively. In Shasta, however, LaMalfa won by more than 20,000 votes.

A June poll by Lake Research Partners (paid for by the Denney campaign) suggests that her overall support in the district might be growing, significantly. Among likely voters in District 1 given only “ballot designations and party affiliations,” Denney trailed by five points, a gain of four from 2018. However, among voters also supplied with balanced positive profiles for each candidate, it’s an even race. She came out top by five points with already-informed voters and by eight points among respondents presented with positive and negative messaging on the candidates.

“Nothing about me changed,” said Denney, who says she’s stuck with her platform and messaging between elections. Her explanation for the change reflected in the poll is that “people in our part of the world are sick and tired of the status quo, they’re sick and tired of somebody pretending to work for them. They’re sick and tired of a representative who’s bought and paid for by his corporate interests.”

It’s likely that much of that fatigue comes from growing frustrations with President Trump and, by association, the members Congress who’ve stood by his side—such as LaMalfa, who according to has voted in line with Trump 94.4 percent of the time. Overall support for congressional Republicans is declining in line with Trump’s sliding poll numbers, and FiveThirtyEight shows that voters currently favor a Democratic Congress over a Republican one by 14 points.

Debra Lucero, a Butte County supervisor who campaigned with Denney in 2018, acknowledged that running as a Democrat in a conservative-leaning district is tough, but she’s cautiously optimistic that Denney’s work could pay off this time.

“It’s kind of like tilling ground, and she’s been tilling some really hard earth,” said Lucero. “Hopefully the seeds she’s been planting will begin to grow.”

Time for a change?

Placed against the backdrop of D.C. partisanship, Denney plainly stands out with a smart and intuitive communication style.

“She is open, she is transparent, [and] I think she’s not jaded like a lot of us can be,” Lucero said. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

If she wins in November, Denney’s chief cause would be to address the destructive fires that have ravaged the North State in recent years. She knows she’ll need to galvanize support.

“I’m going to roll in there, I’m going to be the freshman rep from California’s First District and what political power am I going to have? None,” she said. “But what we’re going to do is create allyships with other districts that have large swaths of natural resources, other mountainous districts in California, or in Forest Service District 5, which we are in. We [need to] take every possible step we can to increase the pace and the scale of this restoration work.”

A key difference between how she and LaMalfa see the wildfire issue is that, in addition the recognizing a need for improving forest management and PG&E’s poor infrastructure, Denney follows the science of climate change being a key driver in the growing intensity of wildfires.

“Obviously, wildfires are getting worse and worse, more frequent, more deadly, and hotter and hotter,” Denney said. “For me, besides Congressman Doug LaMalfa, it is hard to find someone who just believes climate change is a hoax. … Even in the ag industry, we’re being hit so hard across the country, and people are like, ‘It wasn’t like this 10 years ago. It wasn’t like this 30 years ago.’”

Denney already has some valuable experience under her belt. Post-Camp Fire, she went to work advocating for the county, at one point traveling to Washington D.C. with a group of people impacted by the disaster and meeting with lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Brian Solecki, Denney’s campaign manager who was on the trip, said, “We spent two days lobbying for increased FEMA funding,” as well as discussing forest health and management and the influence of climate change on wildfires.

During the trip, Denney says, she realized that she had the skills and demeanor to do the work of a high-level public servant. In the office of John Garamendi (of California’s Third District), Denney was left to lead a meeting with the congressman’s staff. Afterward, Solecki said an energized Denney turned to him and said something to the effect of, “We could do this and we could do this well.”

“That was a really transformational trip,” Denney told the CN&R, adding that “getting to be involved at a community level in some of the stuff that was going on in the break of the campaign” inspired her.

When asked how she might overcome Washington’s combative culture, Denney said it comes down to making an effort to listen.

“You can put any single person in front of me and I’ll connect with them, because I’ll shut up, and ask questions,” she said. “That’s the secret to life: Being curious about other people and what they care about.”

To illustrate the point she told a story from her 2018 campaign. Sitting alone at her table during a street fair in Etna, Denney was approached by a Vietnam veteran.

“This old man comes walking up to me—he looks just like my dad—and he’s like, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ ‘I’m a Democrat.’ And he goes off and does his little tirade, and I’m just smiling and nodding, and then I’m like, ‘So, tell me about you.’ We have this whole 20-minute conversation and he ends up giving me a hug and giving me 20 bucks.

“That’s what happens when you show people you care about them.”

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