Republican Abel Maldonado, left, is known as a moderate willing to stake… (Los Angeles Times / Associated…)
For Lois Capps, this was year No. 4 for an award that cynics might see as a punch line: In a Washingtonian magazine poll of congressional staffers, she was again voted the nicest member of the House of Representatives.
An even-tempered former school nurse, the Santa Barbara Democrat prides herself on recruiting Republicans to co-sponsor her bills. "I find it uncomfortable to be around people yelling at each other," she said.
Abel Maldonado, her Republican opponent in next month's election, has no equivalent nice-guy honors. But he is well known as a moderate willing to stake out positions unpopular in his own party. As a state senator, the Santa Maria rancher famously sided with Democrats to cast the deciding vote on a 2009 budget that triggered controversial tax increases.
Though both candidates cast themselves as above politics, the race hasn't exactly been a post-partisan picnic. They paint each other as hypocrites and tax dodgers.
The Capps campaign's frequent "Where's Maldo?" email blasts allege that Maldonado shifts positions whenever it suits him. Maldonado slams Capps as an unrelenting party loyalist — a potentially fatal flaw in a district where Democrats edge out Republicans by less than three percentage points and more than 70,000 unaffiliated voters could swing the election.
The battle's intensity reflects the dramatic change in California's political landscape since new voting maps were drawn last year. After the previous redistricting 10 years earlier, 264 of 265 House elections in California were won by the incumbent party.
Among California's 53 congressional districts, virtually none was safer than Capps'. Her long, narrow slice of the Central Coast — derided by Republicans as the "ribbon of shame"— was carved to exclude conservative inland voters, giving Democrats a 19-point advantage in the last election. Now, most experts say, the district she's running in is up for grabs.
"We're not used to having competitive congressional races in California and, as a result of the new redistricting reforms, the 24th is not only the most competitive district in the state but one of the most competitive in the country," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute for Politics at USC.
The new district, which includes San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and a sliver of Ventura County, forces the candidates to downplay identification with their parties — even as they rely upon them to help fund an increasingly nasty contest.
In a region where media is comparatively inexpensive, a torrent of ads has hammered both candidates over their alleged tax problems.
For years, the Maldonado family farm has been embroiled in disputes with the IRS over taxes of more than $4 million. The agency says the business improperly deducted thousands of dollars for Maldonado's home renovations and other personal expenses.
Maldonado, who is contesting the IRS in court, said Capps turned the campaign negative with attack ads and "still doesn't understand how the tax system works."
Capps has had to respond to attacks over not reporting income of $40,000 from four years of renting a room to a staffer. She said her accountant's failure to tell the IRS six years ago was an oversight.
"As soon as I discovered it, I fixed it," she said.
According to the most recent campaign filings, Capps raised more than $2.1 million by June 30 — more than twice the sum she collected for her entire campaign two years ago. Her top contributors include labor groups, conservation organizations and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Maldonado has raised a little more than $1.7 million, according to the filings, including loans to himself of $765,000. Large donors include agribusinesses and PACs aligned with Republican causes.
He has also been helped by anti-Capps ads from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups.
At a recent debate in Lompoc, Maldonado played down his party ties but was quick to slam his opponent for hers, saying Capps had voted "with party bosses" — specifically House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — 96.8% of the time.
Capps suggested Maldonado, 45, was more in step with his party than he lets on, pointing out that the House's top Republican — Speaker John Boehner — appeared at a Maldonado fundraiser in Santa Barbara.
Both said they had not read their party's platforms.
Capps, 74, is a big supporter of President Obama's healthcare law. Maldonado says he likes some features but thinks the law should be scrapped.
Capps was first elected in 1998, succeeding her husband Walter Capps, a popular UC Santa Barbara religion professor who served in Congress only nine months before suffering a fatal heart attack. She doesn't describe herself ideologically, said campaign aide Jeff Millman: "She calls herself a nurse who solves problems."
Not surprising, said Allen Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who tracks election contests.