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The 'Cory Booker of California' Leaps to Safer Ground

Ruiz is a freshman Democrat from California. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It's a story even Hollywood couldn't concoct.  

Once arguably the most vulnerable House Democrat in California, freshman Rep. Raul Ruiz has climbed to safer ground in the final months of the midterms. His position can be chalked up to a series of politically fortunate — albeit grave — events on two separate flights to the Palm Springs-based 36th District.  

Ruiz represents competitive territory that President Barack Obama won by only 3 points last cycle. The freshman started the midterms as a top GOP target, and Republicans were confident in their recruit, Assemblyman Brian Nestande.  

Then, the completely unexpected happened. Twice.  In October, Ruiz, an emergency room physician by trade, helped resuscitate a man who collapsed on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Dallas. In July, Ruiz helped assist a Breitbart News columnist who had a seizure on a flight en route to Phoenix.  

The wall-to-wall local media coverage Ruiz received from the incidents helped him solidify a favorable personal image that transcended party lines. One Democrat compared him to the intrepid New Jersey Democrat known for shoveling constituents' snowy driveways and, on occasion, rescuing them from burning buildings .  

"He's the Cory Booker of California," said Michael Trujillo, a California Democratic operative. "He’s running around saving everyone. So that has saturated within his district in terms of the media."  

The 42-year-old lawmaker defeated former Rep. Mary Bono Mack by nearly 6 points last cycle. He was part of a late-breaking wave for Democrats in the Golden State that felled a handful of GOP members.  

But the 36th District, which cuts across the southern part of the state to the Arizona border, has a slight Republican voter registration advantage. It also includes a large Hispanic voting population — much of which tends to stay home in midterms.  

Republicans recruited Nestande, 50, a former top aide to Bono Mack. They tout him as a formidable challenger .  

These factors made Ruiz's re-election prospects appear grim at the start of his first term.  

But Nestande, despite his political ties, has proved to be one of the cycle's more disappointing candidates. Republicans grumbled about his poor fundraising, which left him with a dismal $235,000 in cash on hand as of June 30.  

Ruiz reported more than $1.9 million in the bank as of that same date, putting Nestande at a staggering disadvantage in the final stretch.  

Last November Greg Walden, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, publicly admonished Nestande for his poor hauls.  

"He needs to step up his fundraising,” Walden told the Desert Sun . "We’ve communicated that to him.”  

But that disadvantage has been tangible over the past month. At the start of September, Ruiz began blanketing Palm Springs cable and broadcast with positive ads featuring constituents who had their problems solved by his office.  

Nestande only went up with his first general election ad on Wednesday, backed by small buys on Palm Springs and Los Angeles cable.  

While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has swooped in early to aid a handful of other freshmen, it has not reserved ad time in Ruiz's district. Television time here was altogether excluded from the DCCC's initial crop of fall ad reservations . It's a sign national Democrats don't think Ruiz is at risk in November.  

The NRCC — tasked with expanding the GOP's House majority in November — said in June it planned to spend $490,000 on Palm Springs cable . But sources tracking media buys in the district say the NRCC has yet to purchase that airtime.  

Now Nestande's best hope lies in an unfavorable national environment for Democrats sweeping out his opponent.  

Privately, Democrats say Obama's approval ratings here are worrisome. And with more than half the district located in the relatively affordable Palm Springs market, outside groups could bombard the district with ads in the final few weeks of the race.  

With control of the Senate up for grabs, however, it is not a certainty that outside groups will spend much on House races — especially this one.  

"That’s a tough deal," California GOP operative Matt Rexroad said of the race. "He’s an ER physician and he’s saving people in airplanes. That’s a tough deal."  

California's 36th District is rated Democrat Favored by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.  

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone. Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the district's geography.