As Washington was abuzz Friday over the release of a classified memo, Democrats and Republicans were up in arms over its allegations. And right in the middle was Devin Nunes, a Republican representative in California and the memo’s chief architect.
Here in his home district, a conservative farming region in California’s Central Valley, Mr. Nunes remains wildly popular and his constituents, by and large, greeted the memo, and their congressman’s role at the center of it, with a collective shrug. The memo, which has incited a political firestorm, accused the F.B.I. and Justice Department of abusing their surveillance powers at the start of the investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Instead, everyone wanted to talk about water, or more precisely, the lack of it.
“He listens, and he really took on the water issue, which is a big fight here,” said Tom Pinkham, 47, a plum farmer.
And speaking of water, Mr. Pinkham, a Republican, said of Mr. Nunes: “No one thinks for one second that he’s carrying water for Trump. He’s for less government. A no B.S. guy. That’s it.”
In this district, Mr. Nunes is more closely associated with campaigning for farmers on water issues than anything to do with Russia — pushing for more dams and trying to get more water from Northern California in the face of a shortage that many fear could turn into another drought.His efforts have largely failed to solve the problem, which his Republican constituents here blame on environmentalists and Democrats in Sacramento, California’s capital, who they say are more interested in saving the smelt from extinction than serving the region’s farmers with enough water, an issue that President Trump took up during his campaign.
Many people interviewed here on Friday were either unaware of the memo and the stir it had caused in Washington, or not concerned with it.
“The more information the better,” Mr. Pinkham said over lunch at Philly’s, a cheesesteak restaurant in the shape of a railroad car. “The whole thing stinks. I’m not a fan of big government,” he said, adding that he hasn’t been watching the news. “The less I watch, my blood pressure gets a lot better.”
Based in the heart of the heavily agricultural Central Valley, Mr. Nunes’s district includes miles of farmland, but also parts of suburban Fresno County. Latinos slightly outnumber whites in total population, but that does not necessarily reflect the makeup of the electorate. The median household income is just over $56,000 a year, and about 20 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, compared with about 14 percent statewide. Just under 16 percent of people who live in Mr. Nunes’s district have college degrees.
Democrats have made California a prime target in their efforts to recapture Republican seats in the coming midterm elections. Seven positions now held by Republicans are considered particularly vulnerable.
Mr. Nunes represents a solidly Republican part of the state and is not on that list: He won re-election in 2016 with a lopsided 67 percent of the vote; Mr. Trump drew about 53 percent of the vote that year. That said, Democrats have become increasingly optimistic about making strong showings across California this year, given Mr. Trump’s unpopularity. And they have suggested that Mr. Nunes might ultimately be in their cross-hairs, in no small part because of his role as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the contention by Democrats that he is misusing that position to block actions in the Russia investigation on behalf of Mr. Trump.
Not everyone, of course, supports Mr. Nunes, and The Fresno Bee, in a recent editorial, called Mr. Nunes “Trump’s stooge,” for pushing for the release of the classified memo.
The editorial said of Mr. Nunes that “he certainly isn’t representing his Central Valley constituents or Californians, who care much more about health care, jobs and, yes, protecting Dreamers than about the latest conspiracy theory.”
One of his main challengers, Andrew Janz, a deputy district attorney from Fresno County, said this week that the furor over the memorandum had brought in a flood of campaign contributions.
But many of Mr. Nunes’s conservative constituents say he is representing them just fine, and besides, the fracas of Washington is irrelevant to their lives, many say.
“It’s just a big game for everyone back there,” Mr. Pinkham said.
At Café 225, a bar and restaurant on Visalia’s Main Street, Rich Gonne was drinking a beer and watching a golf tournament on his phone Friday afternoon. He had followed the news during the day, and said he had first supported the memo’s release, in the name of transparency. But once it came out, and it was clear the memo’s assertions were based on partial evidence, Mr. Gonne said it would only “lead to more divisions.”
He said the memo only verified what one side already believes. “It didn’t do anyone any good,” he said.
Mr. Gonne said he identified as a libertarian, and did not vote for Mr. Nunes. He said he did not like Mr. Trump, but that he would probably benefit from the recent tax overhaul.
“All of them,” he said, “are liars.”
The conversation, as most political conversations here do, turned back to water.
“I’m a golfer,” he said, “and we have no water, so there are terrible conditions at the golf course. And we are about to go through a drought.”
Even as residents here say they are unconcerned with Washington’s dramas, nearly everyone says that the coarseness of the national political dialogue has rubbed off here, and that conversations between liberals and conservatives are more difficult.
“My feeling is we are going to hell in a hand basket,” said Kare Dunn, a retired photographer and a Democrat. She said that in the age of Trump, society had been drained of empathy, and that kids were being taught that “what is true is false.”
The relative lack of concern here with the memo, and Mr. Nunes’s role at the center of the controversy, is borne out in how residents consume their local news. “People would rather read about the local robbery or whatever the local news is than what Nunes is doing in Washington,” said Eric Woomer, the news editor of the Visalia Times-Delta, a six-day-a-week newspaper.
Mr. Woomer said that when Mr. Nunes returns to his district — which he said he does frequently, and is known for playing racquetball on Sundays after church — and holds a public forum on water issues, “it is standing room only.”
“Once he goes to Washington and starts talking about Russia and the intel committee, people lose interest,” he said.
He said residents here would prefer to read about a prostitution bust at a local motel than a story about Mr. Nunes and the Russia investigation. “I don’t think they relate to Russia,” Mr. Woomer said. “They care about what is going on here.”
This piece was originally published at the New York Times.