Democrats are sending warning signals on a previously sleepy southern California House race — a tangible sign of an increasingly tough midterm for the party.
Freshman Rep. Julia Brownley is one of three House Democrats receiving extra and early help from the national party. A year ago, her district was barely on the party's radar of competitive races, after President Barack Obama carried it by 10 points last cycle.
"This is a tight race and a difficult seat, and we are committed to hanging onto it," said Matt Thornton, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC aiding Brownley's re-election.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has increased its investment in her district from $950,000 to $1.1 million in airtime, according to a source tracking media purchases in the district. The DCCC hit the airwaves on Sept. 2 — three weeks earlier than it announced in its May media plans .
The DCCC also shifted funds to give additional help to Reps. John Barrow in Georgia and Bill Enyart in Illinois. But Barrow's and Enyart's districts are less favorable for Democrats than Brownley's seat.
House Majority PAC is also sending help, spending $46,000 for a direct mail piece in early September attacking Brownley's opponent, Republican state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell.
Privately, Democrats say their polling puts Brownley in a dead heat with Gorell.
But Democrats are also fretting about the 26th District because a large percentage of Democratic voters there usually stay home in non-presidential election years. The problem will be exacerbated in 2014 without ballot measures driving turnout or competitive statewide contests in California. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, is expected to cruise to re-election, and local operatives say he's unlikely to help candidates down ballot.
"This is the year that Republicans have a base that might be as large as the Democrats'," Matt Rexroad, a California Republican operative, said of the state. "That’s the advantage."
Republicans set out this cycle to defeat Brownley in her Ventura County district, viewing her first re-election battle in a midterm as an opportune time to take her down. In 2012, she defeated GOP former state Sen. Tony Strickland by 6 points when it was an open seat.
The GOP sees her potential defeat as part of its Republican redemption tour in the Golden State , following the party's dismal performance there last cycle. After an independent redistricting commission redrew the House district lines, Republicans lost four seats. Today, the GOP controls just 15 of the state's 53 House districts. Republicans tout Gorell as the kind of GOP candidate who fits the district. A commander in the Naval Reserves, he has built a reputation as a moderate Republican in Sacramento and his state legislative district overlaps with the Ventura County chunk of the seat, making him more familiar to a portion of the electorate.
But Gorell entered the final months of the race with a significant cash disadvantage. As of June 30, Gorell reported just $306,000 in the bank — not nearly enough for sustained paid communication in the district. Brownley reported more than $1.5 million in cash on hand, and she's been on cable since the last week of August with an ad touting her record on women's issues.
In response to the challenge, Brownley's team has attacked Gorell's record in the legislature.
"While he’s trying to sell himself as a moderate, his voting record in the California Assembly is hardly a moderate record," said Rachel Estrada, a spokeswoman for Brownley's campaign. "He voted against women and middle-class families. He doesn’t match up with Ventura County."
Lucky for Brownley, the district is precariously positioned in the heart of the Los Angeles media market. That makes it difficult and pricey to communicate with many local voters through traditional campaign television. Also, the broadcast media market covers such a large area that many people who see the ads don't vote in the district anyway. The media market also makes the district a bad return on investment for super PACs, which often swoop in in the final days of a race to bombard a district with negative advertising. That could prevent Gorell from getting aid from Republican outside groups.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which was at an $8.7 million cash disadvantage to the DCCC as of July 20, has yet to place an ad reservation intended for the race. The longer they wait, the louder Democrats will be on air defining Gorell to voters.
"In some ways it does inoculate her from getting the crazy spending happening to her, as opposed to standard districts in the U.S.," said one California Democratic operative unaffiliated with Brownley's campaign.
California's 26th District is rated a Leans Democratic contest 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.