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Ventura Congressional race brings out Speaker Boehner and the Koch brothers

The usually-reliable blue state of California has become a target for Republicans looking to boost their majority clout in Washington.

The GOP has targeted more than a dozen Congressional seats nationwide. Three are in California. And those races are bringing big names--and big bucks--to the Golden State.

In Ventura, Democrat Julia Brownley won her Congressional seat two years ago by fewer than 10,ooo votes. She’s in a tight battle with Jeff Gorell, a Republican Assemblyman, and both are staking out moderate positions in a district that's split almost evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and voters who decline to pick a party. 

Gorrell is pro-choice and supports comprehensive immigration reform. He’s a Naval Reserve commander who served two tours in Afghanistan, which is a big deal in a district that's home to a naval base. Brownley serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee. 

Andrew Clark, with the Republican National Congressional Committee, says the 26th district is "looking to be one of our top pickup opportunities, not just in California, but in the country."

The same kind of pitched battle is going on in Sacramento, between Democratic incumbent Ami Bera and Republican Doug Ose and in San Diego, where Scott Peters is being challenged by GOP candidate Carl DeMaio. 

In all three cases, California’s citizen-drawn redistricting made the districts politically balanced – and that's making the races competitive. All three are attracting national attention -- particularly the Brownley seat.

Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says the DCCC knew "early on" that the 26th was going to be "tightly contested." Not only has the DCCC helped Brownley organize, according to the Ventura County Star, they've independently spent $1 million on her behalf and have started running TV ads.

The House Majority PAC has also spent $300,000 on her race. Brownley herself is no slouch. So far, she's raised $2.7 million - nearly three times Gorell’s $1 million and in the past few weeks of the campaign, fundraising appeal emails from either Brownley or the DCCC have been landing in Democratic inboxes at a rate of more than half a dozen a day.

But it may not be enough.

House Speaker John Boehner flew out to California this month to headline at a Gorell fundraiser. The Washington Post reports he'll spend half a million dollars from his leadership PAC targetting Brownley. Another $834,000 has been reserved for anti-Brownley commercials on local cable channels, funded by the American Future Fund, the Koch brothers' political action committee.

Both the non-partisan Cook Political Report and Real Clear Politics label the Brownley/Gorell race a toss-up.

It’s been two decades since an incumbent Democratic member of Congress from California lost to a Republican in an election that wasn’t in a redistricting year.  In 1994, Democrat Richard Lehman lost to Republican George Radanovich in Fresno and Dan Hamburg lost to Frank Riggs in a Northern California coastal race.

It wasn't just a bad year for Democrats in California: 1994 was the year of the so-called Gingrich Revolution, when Republicans picked up more than 50 seats in the House and Newt Gingrich became Speaker.

But in California, another factor led to higher than normal Republican turnout: Proposition 187. 

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, says the measure, which denied service to undocumented immigrants "brought out the right, brought out conservatives, brought out Republicans." 

The same thing happened in 1978. Three California House Democats lost their seats that year: John Krebs lost to Chip Pashayan in Fresno, Majority Whip John McFall lost to Norm Shumway in a Northern California race, and Mark Hannaford lost to Dan Lungren in Long Beach. Jeffe says the mother of all ballot propositions was on the ballot that year: Prop 13. It brought out what she calls "angry Californians" upset at how much their property taxes kept increasing, particularly in southern California, which had "at least 60% of the voters."

Typically, incumbents have an advantage. They have name recognition and a local office to help constituents with all kinds of problems -- and a budget to tell them about it. Marc Sandalow,  Associate Academic Director of the University of California's Washington Center, says that may not help this year.

"People hate Congress right now," he says. "So they hate incumbents."

Democrats are also worried about low voter turnout. There’s little on the ballot to bring them to the polls: Jerry Brown is expected to cruise to victory at the top of the ticket. There is a water bond on this November ballot, but Jeffe scoffs at the notion that it will bring out voters from anywhere but the parched Central Valley. 

The June primary was one of the lowest California turnouts on record. Sandalow says November could be even worse -- and that's good news for Gorell. A low turnout election tends to favor the elderly voters who show up, he says, "it tends to favor conservative voters, it favors people who are mad at the incumbents, that’s all trouble for Brownley."

And it's trouble for Democrats,  who are worried about losing more seats in the House -- and perhaps their majority in the Senate.