The new 13th also contains Harder’s hometown of Turlock, though he sought to emphasize his ties to the new 9th by saying, “150 years ago my great-great-grandpa settled in Manteca to start a peach farm and raise his family.” Politically, the two districts are very similar on the presidential level, with the 9th a touch bluer: It would have backed Joe Biden 55-43, compared to 54-43 for Biden in the 14th. The 9th, however, is much more compact and closer both to Sacramento and the Bay Area; for whatever reason, Harder decided he preferred it to the 13th.
McNerney himself was elected to Congress in the 2006 blue wave by defeating seven-term Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, a campaign that took place two years after Pombo beat him in a landslide. McNerney, of whom NBC would later say, “He has written novels and a satire diet book, and is a wind energy consultant who named his daughter Windy,” was a little-noticed first-time candidate in 2004 when he won the nomination with a write-in campaign after Team Blue failed to field another candidate.
Pombo, by contrast, was a prominent rancher and House Resources Committee chair whose turf was sometimes referred to as “Pombo Country,” and he had no trouble winning in the years since his tight initial 1992 victory. Pombo’s seat, which was numbered the 11th, at the time contained some of the Bay Area’s more conservative suburbs as well as a large slice of Stockton’s San Joaquin County, and the incumbent turned back McNerney 61-39 as George W. Bush was prevailing by a 54-45 spread.
McNerney soon sought a rematch, but the DCCC backed Navy veteran Steve Filson in the party primary (California wouldn’t implement its current top-two primary system until the 2012 cycle) over their last nominee. McNerney, though, had the backing of the state Democratic establishment and local labor groups, and he won the nomination 53-28. Pombo, meanwhile, faced a quixotic but high-profile intra-party challenge of his own from former Rep. Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican who had famously run an anti-war primary campaign against President Richard Nixon in 1972. Pombo won by a wide 62-33, but McCloskey soon resurfaced as a prominent McNerney supporter.
It became clear before long that this race would be far more competitive than their last match was, and it wasn’t just because 2006 was turning into an awful year for Team Red. Environmental groups detested Pombo, who had used his prominent post to promote drilling and benefit landowners, and they spent heavily to beat him now that he finally seemed vulnerable. McNerney also captured the attention of the nascent netroots community, which helped him raise a serious amount of money this time.
Pombo still enjoyed a big financial advantage, but he was badly damaged by his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. All of this allowed McNerney to completely turn things around from the last cycle and win 53-47, which made Pombo the one California congressman to lose a general election from 2002 through 2010. Pombo, for his part, would go on to take third in the 2010 primary for the 19th District against Jeff Denham, who would eventually lose in 2018 to none other than Harder.
Republicans planned to target McNerney in 2008, but he held off former Assemblyman Dean Andal 55-45 as Barack Obama was taking the 11th by the same 54-44 margin. But 2010 was an altogether different matter, and the congressman had a tough race ahead of him against Republican David Harmer, a well-funded businessman who had run a strong special election campaign the previous year for the neighboring and far more Democratic 10th District.
McNerney, who had worked hard to cultivate a moderate image, enjoyed far more outside support than Harmer, which may have made all the difference: The incumbent won by a 48-47 margin in a race that took weeks to call, giving his party some late good news after an otherwise dreary cycle.
The state’s new independent redistricting commission soon completely redrew the congressional map, and McNerney opted to move to the potentially competitive 9th District around Stockton for 2012 rather than take on fellow Democratic Rep. Pete Stark in the safely blue 15th in the East Bay. (Stark would go on to lose an intra-party general election to Eric Swalwell.)
McNerney still looked like the favorite in a seat that Obama had carried 56-41 in 2008, but he faced a serious threat from Republican Ricky Gill, a well-connected 25-year-old businessman and member of the state Board of Education. Gill, who sought to use McNerney’s Bay Area roots against him, outraised the incumbent and benefited from heavy spending from the NRCC, but the Democrat won 56-44 as Obama carried the 9th by a larger 57-38 margin.
National Republicans never again seriously went after McNerney, though this may have cost them the chance to beat him in 2014. Few gave perennial candidate Tony Amador a second thought including McNerney, who spent little in the lead up to the election, but the congressman won just 52-48 as another GOP wave hit hard. McNerney, however, won their rematch 57-43 in 2016, and he also claimed his final two terms by double digits.