WASHINGTON -- Political junkies are gravitating toward the Northern San Joaquin Valley, seeking action and maybe a career boost in one of California's few competitive congressional campaigns.
As incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, battles Republican challenger Dean Andal of Stockton, congressional staffers from both parties are arriving for a busman's holiday. They're taking vacation time but devoting it to politics, a common practice on which many campaigns rely.
"There are going to be Republicans from all over the country working on that race," noted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "Most of our people will be taking time off to work on campaigns."
From the other side of the Capitol aisle, Democratic press secretary Bret Rumbeck agreed: "As we get closer to Nov. 4, this place empties out more and more."
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Increasingly, the destination of choice is the 11th Congressional District, which stretches from Ripon to Morgan Hill. The temporary migration reveals a bit about how Congress works.
Few House incumbents face serious challenges. Even in 2006, when McNerney first won election and Democrats regained congressional control, 94 percent of incumbents won re-election. The overall re-election rate hasn't fallen below 85 percent in 40 years.
Consequently, congressional staffers with a hankering for politics and ambition to burn gravitate to the handful of races where the outcome is actually in doubt. McNerney's seat fits that category.
He had $1 million available as of Sept. 30, compared with Andal's $849,747. However, Republicans enjoy a 41 percent to 38 percent voter registration advantage over Democrats.
"It's a district that should be in Republican hands," Nunes said.
Four or five of Nunes' staffers, including chief of staff Johnny Amaral, will be aiding Andal.
Spencer Pederson, press secretary for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said, "we'll definitely have a presence" with a "couple of people" volunteering.
Volunteer calls year pivotal
McNerney's campaign will be boosted by volunteers such as Fresno native Monica Carmean, a Northwestern University graduate who works alongside Rumbeck in the office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
"This is the most pivotal year I've seen in my lifetime," Carmean said.
The outside staffers are taking vacation time to campaign. So are some of McNerney's employees, including congressional press secretary Andy Stone.
"A couple of other (McNerney) staffers will also be taking time off here and there," Stone said.
They must separate their legislative from their political work, including using separate phones and e-mail addresses.
The campaign work can serve multiple purposes. It enhances a résumé. It breeds contacts. And some staffers just like the adrenalin rush of campaigning or the thought of making a difference.
"From the nuts and bolts perspective, I always emphasize to our staff the value of learning what you can't learn at a hearing or in a textbook," Amaral said.
In addition to outside help, there's lots of outside funding.
McNerney benefited from large donations by national environmental organizations in 2006, when he defeated then-incumbent Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy.
This year, a Washington-based anti-tax group called Club for Growth is weighing in big time on the Republican's behalf.
The organization and its allies account for about $1 in every $10 contributed to Andal's campaign, federal election records show.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0006.