WASHINGTON (AP) — David Valadao is a Republican member of Congress from California, but voters in his agriculture-heavy district won't necessarily recognize that he's the incumbent when they cast their vote. Instead, he'll be listed on the ballot as "farmer/small businessman."
Farther north, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera is highlighting some of his other credentials — as well as congressman. Bera will be listed as "doctor/teacher/congressman." Running against him in the Sacramento suburbs, Republican Doug Ose, a former three-term congressman, describes himself as "small business owner." State law does not allow him to cite his former job as a congressman.
California is unusual in that it allows candidates to tell voters a little bit — three words or less — about the other work they've done in life.
Most of the state's incumbents describe themselves as a "United States representative" or "member of Congress." But in some close races, a few are playing down their Washington connections. It's no mystery why: The public holds Congress in exceedingly low esteem.
"David lives on his farm. He's been farming his whole life," said Valadao's campaign spokesman, Tal Eslick, rejecting the notion that Valadao wanted distance from Washington. "He's run a small business, still does. We thought that was the best reflection of who he is."
Though not an incumbent, Valadao's opponent, Amanda Renteria, has Capitol Hill experience as a former aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. She uses the designation of "farm policy adviser," a nod to the district's agricultural roots without specifically referencing the Washington tie. Her campaign spokeswoman, Maria Machuca, said the title reflects Renteria's role in helping write a farm bill when she worked for Stabenow.
Dana Chisnell, who provides advice to governments about how to make ballots more easily understood, said states generally limit information about the candidates to what party they belong to. Using a job description on the ballot could help counter what she described as a "surprising lack of civic literacy" and ultimately prove helpful. She said one of the main question voters have when they go to the poll is: Who is the incumbent?
Nationally, a tiny number of states do allow candidates to note their job experience, but that generally applies to only a small percentage of candidates.
Wisconsin, for example, allows candidates to provide a five-word description of who they are, but only if they are not affiliated with a political party. Michigan and Wyoming allow candidates to use job descriptions only if their names are the same or so similar that voters would be confused without more identifying information.
A few states also allow nicknames, but the rules are generally quite strict. In North Carolina, for example, a candidate who wants their nickname on the ballot has to fill out a form and swear that's how they are commonly known.
In California's Ventura County, Democrat Julia Brownley has used the ballot title to tackle a potential soft spot in her candidacy. She moved into the district two years ago from Santa Monica, and Republicans have spent the campaign trying to remind voters of her limited Ventura County roots. She also represented much of Ventura County when she served in the state Assembly prior to entering Congress. She describes herself as "Ventura County congresswoman." Her opponent, Republican Jeff Gorell, uses "legislator/military commander."
Overall, incumbents most frequently wanted to highlight their experience as a farmer or rancher, with six of 47 incumbents mentioning that job.
Bob Stern, who headed an organization that studied various government reform efforts in California, said there was a time when the state's congressional incumbents would only describe themselves as a representative or congressman, but that the approval ratings of Congress have given incumbents an incentive to broaden that description.
"Particularly for non-incumbents, it's important to have some sort of designation that says, 'Who are you?'" Stern said. "For incumbents, the real question is, why are you putting something else besides member of Congress?"