TV airwaves are crowded with negative ads and mailboxes are stuffed with fliers for and against Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and Democratic challenger Jose Hernandez.
Beyond that, the race for the 10th District seems oddly low key.
There haven't been large rallies. No prominent state or national politicians have stumped publicly for either man. Yard signs and bumper stickers are scarce. And the one and only candidate debate didn't attract a big crowd.
But during the past month, nationally financed independent campaign committees have poured nearly $3.3 million into TV attack ads, which are about equally divided between bashing Hernandez and denouncing Denham.
The candidates' own campaigns, meanwhile, are spending millions more on promotional materials and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Each side thinks it can win, and various partisan polls and pundits are labeling the election a toss-up or leaning toward a Denham victory.
While Washington Democratic and Republican strategists battle over how to win the seat, most folks in the district, which includes all of Stanislaus County and a slice of southern San Joaquin County, don't seem to be buying into the partisan wrangling.
Democrat and Modesto City Councilman Dave Lopez said many people here consider themselves to be "valleycrats," locally focused moderates who are not staunchly allied with either major party.
Despite Democratic political ads painting Denham as a far-right conservative and party loyalist, Lopez doesn't see him that way and has offered his endorsement.
"Denham's working with folks on both sides," said Lopez, who is among Stanislaus' few Latino elected officials. In his last council race, Lopez said, Denham backed him rather than his Republican opponent. "Denham helped me out and hosted a fund-raiser for me."
Several other Democratic officeholders also have crossed party lines to endorse Denham, including Turlock Mayor John Lazar, Newman Mayor Ed Katen and Patterson Councilman Dominic Farinha.
"My view is: Turlock first. I'm not a party partisan," Lazar explained. He believes Denham would serve the region best. "Jeff is always accessible.
He talks straight."
Katen said he, too, has grown to like Denham, despite their different party registrations.
"I've found myself being more of an independent than a Democrat," Katen said. "I'm the kind of guy who goes with my gut feeling."
Farinha agreed that his votes "are always about the issues," not political affiliation. He said he's gotten to know Denham and grown to trust him.
"Jeff understands the challenges the valley currently is facing," Farinha said. "He's not a newcomer into the political scene. He's been thoroughly vetted."
Farinha said he hasn't met Hernandez, and he was disappointed his fellow Democrat hasn't made an effort to contact him.
"Usually, most candidates reach out to elected officials," Farinha said. "But there never really was an outreach effort (by Hernandez)."
Patterson Mayor Luis Molina has had a different experience and has become one of Hernandez's strongest supporters. "Jose's story shows he is more than just a competent engineer and astronaut.
He's the epitome of what's possible in our nation," said Molina, who also sits on the Stanislaus County Board of Education.
Molina, a Democrat, met Hernandez about a year ago and was impressed by his "acumen, passion and desire to serve his country."
The fact that Hernandez is a fellow Latino is not Molina's primary reason for supporting him, but the mayor does appreciate how "Jose can speak two languages and lives in two cultures, just like I do."
The region's expanding Latino population certainly is a factor in this race. A decade ago, about 31 percent of Stanislaus residents were of Latino descent. Now they make up nearly 43 percent of the county's population.
That has pushed immigration issues into the forefront for many voters, and it is a topic about which Denham and Hernandez have different views.
"I stand with Jose on his immigration policies. That's the biggest reason I'm supporting him," said Rubén Villalobos, president of Modesto City Schools' Board of Education.
Like Hernandez and unlike Denham, Villalobos strongly supports the so-called Dream Act, which would allow undocumented residents who came to America as children to attend college, hold jobs and get loans.
Villalobos has been contributing to and helping Hernandez raise money for his campaign, and he's convinced the Democratic candidate would do a better job representing working people.
Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh, another Democrat, has a completely different reason for backing Hernandez.
Marsh said he endorsed Denham six years ago when the Republican ran for state Senate. At the time, Marsh said, he told Denham he wanted him to work diligently to change the way the state allocates property taxes so that Stanislaus could keep a larger share of the money, as most other California counties already do.
"During the budget deadlock, Denham didn't do anything to get that problem solved," Marsh said. "I really dislike partisan politics, and every move Denham makes is along the party line. I don't know if Hernandez would be better. I just know he can't be worse."
Denham's partisan voting record in the House of Representatives is the reason recent polling results have been shifting toward Hernandez, according to Jesse Ferguson, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ferguson, who acknowledges he never has visited Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, charges that Denham "has been out of step with the district's voters since he got to Washington" two years ago. Ferguson's D.C.-based committee has spent more than $1.1 million in the past month on ads criticizing Denham.
Its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has spent about $580,000 on ads attacking Hernandez the past two weeks.
"There's no doubt TV ads are effective
and hard-hitting or critical ads aren't necessarily out of line," said Mike Lynch, a public policy consultant and former chief of staff for Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres, who lost his seat 10 years ago.
Though he's long been a staunch Democrat, Lynch is backing Denham and is confident the Republican will win.
"Denham is a tenacious campaigner. He works really, really hard at this. That will serve to his advantage," Lynch said.
Just because he's supporting a GOP candidate in this race, Lynch said that doesn't mean he has changed his political allegiance. "I probably have the only lawn in Turlock that has both an Obama sign and a Denham sign."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.