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Josh Harder, at furthest left, in a group photo with former President Barack Obama standing in front of an American flag and a California state flag
Josh Harder, at furthest left, at a rally with former President Barack Obama this month
Barbara Davidson / Getty

A venture capitalist is running for Congress in farm country. And his opponent is turning those Silicon Valley years into an insult.

The race between Josh Harder and Jeff Denham isn’t just about one seat. It’s a referendum on how people feel about Silicon Valley.

MODESTO, Calif.

Jeff Denham would like to make “venture capitalist” a dirty word. Josh Harder would probably be all right if voters didn’t know what one of those is.

Denham, R-Calif., and his wiry 32-year-old Democratic opponent are locked in one of America’s most competitive congressional races, playing out here in this almond-picking, culturally conservative swath of California’s Central Valley. And yes, Josh Harder was until last year a venture capitalist.

Most recently an on-the-rise enterprise investor at Bessemer Venture Partners in Silicon Valley, Harder these days takes pains to stress the more homegrown parts of his biography: His ancestors’ peach farm in Manteca; his years as a paperboy at the local Turlock Journal; and his decision last year, energized by Donald Trump’s presidency, to move home and run for Congress.

This race is so revealing not just because the battle for control of Congress rests on candidates like Harder — one of the 23 Democrats that must win for their party to flip the House of Representatives. But this is also an election that will show whether “venture capitalist” can be used as an epithet in politics, much like Barack Obama was able to use “vulture capitalist” to attack Mitt Romney’s background in private equity six years ago.

And at an even broader level, this election is something of a referendum on how people feel about Silicon Valley at this moment of reckoning for Big Tech. As tech’s wealthiest look in the mirror and increasingly see political candidates, the vitriol of this race is likely a sign of things to come.

“Who is Josh Harder? He’s a shady San Francisco venture capitalist,” a narrator intones in a new GOP television ad that began this week. “With shady San Francisco venture capitalist Josh Harder, it’s more for Josh, and less for you.”

Harder appears loath to talk about his Silicon Valley venture capital job, though he disputes that it is a serious political liability. In two events this past weekend — one before working-class voters in a second-floor union hall auditorium, and one on an breezy poolside patio as supporters enjoyed wine and cheese — Harder never brought up his background in technology investing, preferring to keep the spotlight on his platform and his opponent.

“He has to make me scary,” Harder said of Denham in an interview with Recode. “Because if he doesn’t, he knows we’re going to win. So he has to make it sound really evil.”

Harder aides say that he only lived in the Bay Area for a total of seven months, and the Democrat grew up here until he headed to Stanford for college. But there is a long history in politics of incumbents attacking challengers who change addresses just before filing for office. And some voters said in a series of interviews here that Denham’s attacks on television and the trail are breaking through, even if Harder fans dismiss them as baseless.

“If you don’t know anything about him, you’d say, ‘Wait a minute — why’d this rich guy move here just to run?’” said Timm LaVelle, a longtime Democratic activist who worryingly asked Harder about Denham’s attacks last Saturday evening. “It’s totally false, but it’s bad enough that if people have an inclination to believe the worst, it could add one percent or two percent — and that could make all the difference.”

National operatives on both sides of the aisle say California’s Tenth District — which includes everything from rural farmland stretching toward Yosemite National Park and outer Bay Area suburbs home to super-commuters — is one of the country’s tightest. Denham, elected during the Tea Party wave of 2010, is fighting to hold onto a heavily minority district that backed Hillary Clinton by three percentage points in 2016.

Denham’s argument has not been subtle. Campaign signs across the district repeatedly shout two words: “veteran” and “farmer.” He is a very hard man to find on the campaign trail — he declined interview requests for this story — but Denham has positioned himself as the friendly neighbor next door, striving so much for a common man’s touch that the incumbent congressman recently battled in court to try and make sure his occupation was listed as a “farmer” on the November ballot.

And indeed, as a canvassing walk with a Denham organizer through a modest, American flag-lined Modesto neighborhood revealed, some residents have personal, hyper-local connections to their four-term congressman. This district is only about one to two hours from downtown San Francisco, but voters here have an intensely loyal connection to “the Valley” — and some revulsion for the other area that tech folks primarily think of as “the Valley.”

Sabrina Gonzales, an 18-year-old student who knocks on 700 doors a week for the Denham campaign and led Recode on one of her typically sun-scorched walks, isn’t inclined to repeat her boss’s attacks on the Bay Area. But she does think there’s a unique way of life on this rich California soil that farmers can especially understand — and tech investors, who deal in nine-figure company valuations and write checks in the millions of dollars, can’t.

“Even if they don’t know someone directly or are a farmer themself, it’s an identity of the Valley,” Gonzales said. “That’s what we’re known for.”

Jeff Denham campaign headquarters phone calls
Denham volunteers make calls at campaign headquarters.

Hostility toward outsiders ranged from one woman who called the Democratic candidate a “spoiled little rich boy” (despite the fact that she herself recently moved from the Bay Area, as her front yard’s “Welcome to Raider Nation” plaque made clear) to folks like Jim Beal, who has just enough hesitation in his mind to give some pause.

“They say he’s from Turlock,” said Beal, shutting the door on his porch to quiet down three barking dogs inside, “Just like Jeff Denham.”

The key issue at doors, and the one that both campaigns are asked about as much as any other, is not the Russia investigation or other intellectual debates that grip Silicon Valley’s elite, but the very close-to-home questions about water use in this strawberry-growing, parched part of the country.

So it should be little surprise that both candidates, who will debate for the first time Thursday, are laboring to pitch their local bona fides. Harder said he “completely disagrees” that this is a competition about years-in-the-district (though just in case it is, he is quick to claim that, “if this race becomes about who’s lived in the Valley longer, I’d win.”)

Still, just look at the campaign slogans:

Jeff Denham: “From the Valley. For the Valley.”

Josh Harder: “Of the Valley. For the Valley.”

Harder allies privately admit with a laugh that their chosen candidate is playing down the investor part of his biography. After graduating from Stanford, Harder headed to Harvard Business School and then worked in decidedly white-collar jobs at Boston Consulting Group and Bessemer, where he was on track to become a general partner after investing in companies like Fuze and the recently SoftBank-backed Light.

Those contacts have helped him raise close to $1 million from the Bay Area, some of it from Silicon Valley investors such as John Doerr and Rob Stavis, a Bessemer partner who coincidentally is one of this cycle’s biggest Democratic donors. Several of his former colleagues at Bessemer have been Harder’s most active fundraisers, such as Ethan Kurzweil, another Bessemer partner who is hosting a fundraiser featuring the challenger this Saturday in San Francisco.

Kurzweil said that if Harder can survive the attacks, he would prove a new model for candidates from corporate America: Smart, early-in-their-career moderates who are willing to give up making big money to run for office. The tech boom over the last decade has created a whole group of these young professionals, many of whom are new to politics but could perhaps become credible candidates.

“I don’t know that we need tons of VCs in Washington, but can we get folks like Josh?” Kurzweil said. “Can Josh pave a path for people at Josh’s stage in his career?”

Kurzweil’s fundraiser is expected to feature some Silicon Valley heavy-hitters, according to an invitation seen by Recode, the sort of people who draw Denham’s ire. Asked in an interview if he was “proud” of his extensive Silicon Valley financial support, Harder would only say that he “support from all over” and pointed to national GOP backing for Denham.

When Harder does obliquely refer to his time at Bessemer, he tries to pivot to his record on job creation (much like Romney did).

His campaign literature reads: “After college, Josh went to work helping small businesses grow and succeed.”

“I talk a little bit about my background,” Harder said in the interview, when asked why he is reluctant to talk about his venture capital experience. “But it’s much more interesting to me — and it’s much more interesting to everybody in this district — talking about how we’re actually going to fix these problems, as opposed to whatever else.”

Josh Harder handshake voter
Harder works the crowd at an event in Turlock.

Harder is deliberate, practiced and sometimes nerdily stilted on the campaign trail, much like he might be in a board meeting. More relaxed among the wine-and-cheese set than the union set, his flat ease makes it hard to recall that he was not the chosen candidate of the Democratic establishment. (Harder’s defeated primary opponent had his own memorable job title: Beekeeper.)

“Things are looking good for us. Right now, FiveThirtyEight — Nate Silver, that blog that does a lot of election predictions — shows us with over a 75 percent chance to win,” he says to predictable whoops and hollers in Turlock, before landing the air-sucking punch line. “Of course, that’s about the same percentage he had Hillary Clinton at in 2016.”

And, ever the strategist, Harder is quite aware on the stump of how he could be painted as a Bay Area rich kid. A question about the environment? “I had childhood asthma growing up here as a kid.” A complaint about an area bridge? “I drive over it every morning.” A voter claiming she’s from the country? “That’s not the country! That’s two minutes from where I live.”

But still, there is a hard-to-finger sense from talking to voters that Denham’s attacks are helping define him. Several Harder voters here said their friends had seen Denham’s television ads and then came back quoting the commercials and grousing about the Democrat’s alleged silver spoon.

That vague there’s-something-about-him doubt sits with people like Judi Picinini, who is backing Denham. Picinini was shopping for pumpkins at a discount supermarket on Saturday evening, and the Ripon woman was certain that Harder was some out-of-town rich kid.

Why’s that? She couldn’t point to any actual evidence. But still, the feeling lingered.

“I don’t think that’s made up,” she said. “There’s something to it.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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