Congressional candidate Carl Demaio declares victory in the June 3, 2014 primary in front of a crowd of supporters at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. (Angela Carone/KPBS)
The race between Democratic incumbent Rep. Scott Peters and Republican former City Councilman Carl DeMaio in San Diego's 52nd Congressional District has attracted national attention and money. That's because it's one of the few House races that's rated a pure tossup by the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Because the race is so tight, it's attracted more than $3.5 million in outside spending from groups like Planned Parenthood and Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have spent more than $1.6 million each and have filled local commercial breaks with nasty TV ads.
"Congressman Scott Peters is worth over $40 million, one of the richest in Congress," a female narrator says with disdain in an NRCC ad. "But Peters wanted more, voting himself two huge pay raises."
"Another politician who owes the tea party everything," another female narrator says sadly in a DCCC ad, while footage of frowning children rolls. "Carl DeMaio's exactly what's wrong with Washington."
One of the most commonly used attacks in the race is for both DeMaio and Peters to paint themselves as moderate and each other as extreme.
Peters hasn't hesitated to portray his opponent as a tea party extremist.
“What I've laid out is a very stark difference between me and a record of being a problem-solver, being rewarded by my colleagues with leadership positions because they trust me, and Mr. DeMaio, who's really been the local version of the tea party, someone who's been on the outside, throwing rocks in,” Peters said.
DeMaio wouldn't be interviewed for this story, but he defended himself against the tea party label during a recent NBC San Diego debate.
“Wait, wait, wait, Scott, let's just stop right here," DeMaio said, turning to face Peters. “You want to continue to apply labels to me because you can't defend your own record. So you can call me names all you want. I haven't sat there and called you names. I have issues that I disagree with you on. But to sit there and say, 'I'm going to call my opponent a Tea Party right-wing nut-job extremist,' Scott, it's dishonest, it's divisive, and it's what's wrong with politics today.”
A poll out this week shows the two candidates in a statistical tie. Peters narrowly won the seat in 2012, becoming one of 16 Democrats who stole seats from incumbent Republicans.
The district's voter registration is almost evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents. That means the freshman Democrat's seat is and likely always will be vulnerable, so Democrats are spending time and money to establish ownership of it. President Barack Obama raised funds for Peters in May, while House Speaker John Boehner raised funds for DeMaio this month.
Both candidates claim very similar stances on many issues. DeMaio, who is openly gay, supports same-sex marriage, environmental protections and a woman's right to an abortion. But Peters said DeMaio's moderate stances are new. Peters points out he's been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, while DeMaio, until recently, has been relatively silent on women’s issues.
“He held his first press conference on women's issues, didn't even have anything on his website, and came out supporting Lilly Ledbetter Act, which has already been on the books for five years, so it's about time,” Peters said. “He supported the Republican birth control idea, which provides birth control over the counter but doesn't provide a guarantee that it will be paid for.”
DeMaio repeatedly attacks Peters for taking government perks while serving in Congress and on the San Diego City Council. In a Carl DeMaio for Congress ad, a male narrator calls out "Privileged Peters, a millionaire" who "elected to take a taxpayer-funded car allowance to pay for his luxury BMW. This is the same Privileged Peters who lives in this luxury home and double-dipped on taxpayers by taking his pension early."
“The whole thing's ridiculous, because the whole discussion doesn't create a job, doesn't educate a kid, doesn't provide for anyone's retirement,” he said.
Peters said his biggest achievement so far in Congress is helping San Diego's delegation work well together.
DeMaio told KPBS's television news program "Evening Edition" in June that, if elected, he hopes to focus on a fiscal agenda.
"We should have our elected officials focused on the issues that actually are relevant, like the national debt, getting jobs created, making sure that we provide quality services, particularly for our veterans," he said.
This month, a former campaign worker alleged DeMaio sexually harassed him. DeMaio vehemently denies the claims. The incident has not been resolved, but it's brought even more national attention to the race.