"I believe I'm the most conservative in the race," Zoller said in an interview. "I've run a business, worked in the corporate world and done something other than just passing legislation. I was tea party before they called it tea party."
Zoller said that despite entreaties from the Obama campaign to get a Democrat to run in the district to boost turnout, no Democrat has entered the race. The GOP primary is July 31 and the winner is all but ensured a House seat in November.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has done her part to get the majority back, raising $26 million for the campaign committee alone through January and holding more than 400 events. The revenue total doesn't include fundraising for individual candidates and members.
The Democratic committee had $13.1 million cash on hand at the end of January, compared with Republicans' $17.6 million, but outside spending is well under way. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is up with ads in 11 districts around the country plus a commercial backing Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah.
"This is one dynamic that does keep me up at night," Israel said. "These super PACs." Those are political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited sums to support campaigns, though they must legally remain independent from the candidates they back.
That hasn't stopped the Democrats from trying to expand the field with an ambitious list targeting 36 races, including seven in California.
Helping Democrats was the retirement of three longtime Republican lawmakers — Elton Gallegly, Wally Herger and Jerry Lewis. The party is relying on top recruits Ami Bera, an Indian-American physician running for the second time against nine-term Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in the 7th Congressional District, which includes Elk Grove, and Mark Takano, a Japanese-American and trustee on the Riverside Community College Board seeking an open seat.
In the farm and ranching district that includes Modesto, the race is between former astronaut Jose Hernandez and Rep. Jeff Denham, a first-term Republican. Hernandez offers a personal story that Democrats hope will prove compelling with voters. As a child, he worked in the fields helping his Mexican immigrant parents, who were farm workers. He learned English at age 12, became and engineer and flew on the space shuttle.
Hernandez, who calls himself a local kid who made good, said he wants to "preserve the ability of folks to reach the American dream." The district is 40 percent Hispanic, with 25 percent of voting age. He's upbeat about his chances.
"As they say in Houston, failure is not an option," Hernandez said in an interview.
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