WASHINGTON -- Millions of dollars in campaign cash are pouring into California this year, but the ubiquitous television ads they're funding aren't for the presidential race; the hot ticket is the House of Representatives.
Democrats dominate offices statewide, and President Barack Obama leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 20 points in state polls, but at least eight California House districts are in play more than at any time in decades.
Most observers predict that Republicans will keep their House majority, but the party and its allies aren't taking any chances.
Democrats, meanwhile, see opportunity.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports business-friendly candidates, has spent at least $3 million on television advertising to support eight Republican House candidates in the Golden State, its largest investment this year.
"It's our No. 1 priority in the House," said Rob Engstrom, the chamber's political director.
Getting support from the ads are Rep. Jeff Denham, running against Democrat Jose Hernandez in the newly drawn 10th District, which includes all of Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin; and Republican Ricky Gill, who is challenging incumbent Jerry McNerney in the new 9th District, which includes the rest of San Joaquin County and parts of Sacramento and Alameda.
The ads are part of a $50 million advertising effort that the influential business lobby is poised to spend nationwide to help secure the Republican political stronghold in the House. It tops the $33 million it spent in 2010, when Republicans swept into the majority.
"They've become the dominant player in congressional elections," Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University in the nation's capital, said of the Chamber of Commerce. "It shouldn't be surprising to find them going whole hog in California."
The chamber-funded ads running in California feature a small-business owner, Darlene Miller, who says in the script that she can't hire more workers because of uncertainty over taxes and Obama's health care law.
"You need to know who you're voting for," said Miller, whose company is in Minnesota.
Ironically, Miller is an Obama appointee to the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. She was given a coveted seat next to first lady Michelle Obama when the president addressed a joint session of Congress last year on jobs.
The chamber's spending is not coordinated with individual campaigns, but it could help a number of candidates in competitive races, including incumbent Republican Reps. Dan Lungren, Brian Bilbray and Mary Bono Mack, in addition to Denham.
It's also aiding Republican challengers, including Gill and Abel Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor who's running against Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.
Plans for Medicare debated
In California's 7th Congressional District, where Lungren is locked in a tight rematch with physician Ami Bera, the chamber's ad accuses Bera of supporting $716 billion in cuts to Medicare it claims would take away benefits for 2 million California seniors.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Obama's health care law reduces payments to hospitals and insurers under Medicare Advantage, a private alternative to traditional Medicare.
Other political watchdog Web sites have noted that the cuts are not aimed at services to beneficiaries. But some experts, including Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster, have questioned whether the law's reductions in provider payments would limit the availability of services for beneficiaries over the long term.
About a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries nationwide, and 36 percent in California, are enrolled in Medicare Advantage.
Romney and Ryan have repeated the Medicare claim. But independent fact-checking organizations have described it as misleading or false.
Democrats counter that Lungren and other Republicans voted for the same cuts in a budget crafted by Ryan, though Republicans respond that the savings would help support Medicare's finances.