GOP taps water as wedge issue in Fresno County

For the 10,000 residents of this overwhelmingly Latino city, the message on gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s advertisement is designed to hit home: Mendota’s unemployment rate is 39.9 percent.

Like many places in the southern San Joaquin Valley, this sleepy town in western Fresno County has been sucked dry in recent years by drought, the reduction of water pumping from the Delta to save endangered fish, and a relentless poverty that grinds at the town’s soul. You can see the effect in the downcast eyes of the men wearing cowboy hats who saunter by the billboard on their way to play a round of pool or buy a 24-ounce Budweiser at the nearby 7-Eleven to ease their troubles, at least for one hot afternoon.

For the GOP, the misery brings political opportunity. Republican operatives think they can persuade Latinos, independents and conservative Democrats in this swing county that their interests lie in a pro-business, pro-agriculture, pro-water agenda. The Democratic Party is fighting back, arguing that voters here need political leaders who advocate for economic and social justice — including comprehensive immigration reform.

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