Camarillo print shop owner Tim Anderson can't wait to vote for Democrat Julia Brownley in a key Ventura County congressional race, a contest eyed by both major parties as they struggle for control of the House.
Anderson thinks the liberal state assemblywoman and former Santa Monica school board trustee is a good fit, and a needed change of direction, for Ventura County.
But Mark Hansen, a regional sales manager, thinks the seat should stay red.
He was happy with Elton Gallegly, Ventura County's voice in Congress since 1987, who announced his retirement this year. Now Hansen says he plans to vote for Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland to win the position. "I think this election is one of the most important in our nation, and I'm not interested in change for change's sake."
The seat has tilted right for decades because of boundary lines that included the affluent, heavily Republican suburbs of Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks and left out much of mostly Democratic Oxnard. But last year's remapping created a new 26th Congressional District, which includes nearly all of Ventura County except Simi Valley.
Democrats now hold a 4-percentage-point registration advantage over Republicans, and the race is considered a tossup — 19% of voters declare no party preference, according to the secretary of state's office.
"It's going to be one of the closest races in the country," said Lenny Young, Brownley's campaign manager.
Both parties are expected to spend generously in the district.
Strickland's campaign filings show he raised $1.4 million in the first half of the year — the latest reporting period — much of it from wealthy individuals and political action committees representing the oil, insurance and healthcare industries. The Republican Party is buying ads on Hulu and YouTube and organizing voter outreach through volunteer phone banks, said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Brownley raised $923,000, primarily from unions, environmental groups and advocates of women's issues. House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, spent $700,000 on cable TV spots and mailers.
"California is key in terms of the Democrats taking back the House," said the organization's spokesman Andy Stone. "And this race is right at the top."
Ventura County voters have displayed a strong independent streak. In 2008 they backed Proposition 8, the gay-marriage ban, with 53% of the vote but also supported President Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 12 points.
The county of 823,000 is willing to restrict property rights, with some of the toughest growth-control laws in the nation and much local pride about the area's undeveloped hillsides, open spaces and vibrant agricultural industry. But attempts to enhance local transportation with a tax increase have failed at least twice.
Strickland has represented the area in the Legislature for more than a decade. Brownley, who represents Oak Park, Port Hueneme and much of Oxnard in the Assembly, lived in Santa Monica for 32 years before moving to Ventura County in February to run for the congressional seat.
Tall and amiable, Strickland, 42, repeatedly reminds voters that he's a hometown boy. He calls Brownley a carpetbagger recruited by the Democrats after their top candidate pick, Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, unexpectedly dropped out of the race.
A Moorpark resident, Strickland went directly from Whittier College into politics as chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Tom McClintock before winning his first office in the state Assembly at age 28. After he was termed out, his wife, Audra Strickland, won his seat. Tony Strickland made two failed runs for state controller and in 2008 landed in the state Senate, where he is viewed as a right-winger.
He has taken national anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge and routinely votes against unions, gay rights and legislation benefiting consumers.
Brownley, 60, who is more reserved than Strickland, settled in Santa Monica after attending American and George Washington universities. A former marketing manager and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member, she was elected to the Assembly in 2006. In Sacramento she has focused on education issues and for four years served as chairwoman of the Education Committee. She votes mostly along Democratic Party lines.
Both candidates say strengthening the economy and creating more jobs would be their top priority if elected. They diverge on how to get there.
Brownley supports Obama's healthcare overhaul and his push to roll back Bush-era tax cuts to help lower the deficit. Strickland calls Obama's stimulus package a failure that has resulted in too few jobs and too much debt. He backs a cut in corporate taxes and doesn't want the Bush tax cuts to expire.