If the Capitol looks a bit deserted this week, there's a good reason: Some 200 staff workers have headed into the Ventura area for the hottest legislative battle of the year, pitting two former Assembly members for the Senate seat held by Tom McClintock, who is running for Congress.
Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland are neck-and-neck in the 19th Senate District, a Republican stronghold that has experienced a recent surge in Democratic registrations. Political pros say the race is too close to call, and Senate leaders this week began pouring personnel into the zone to buttress the local campaigns.
Personnel in both houses are working on other campaigns, too, but the 19th Senate District contest is getting the largest single infusion of staffers.
Together, the rival campaigns have raised and spent about $10 million, with a slight edge to Jackson. But that figure doesn't include hefty spending by independent expenditure committees on behalf of both candidates that could push the total to $12 million or higher.
Democrats would like nothing better than to capture the seat long held by the voluble, conservative McClintock, and Republicans want to keep the seat in GOP ranks. Strickland has led narrowly during the campaign, but his edge has been within the surveys' margins of error, prompting political observers in both parties to see the race as a dead heat.
The campaigns are expanding the ground efforts in the final stage .of the campaign – walking precincts, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets, staffing telephone banks and helping people get to the polls.
"It will be the largest ground game in the state," said Chuck Hahn, the political adviser to the Senate Republican Caucus.
Senate Republicans have sent about 60 staffers into the district, which includes pieces of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, while Senate Democrats have shipped an estimated 140 legislative employees to the south. The Capitol workers are not on the government payroll when they work for the campaigns.
"I think it's incredibly tight, and the reason it's close is because of the poor economic conditions," said Jim Evans, an aide to incoming Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg. "
Just before the 2004 presidential election, Republicans had nearly a 3 percent edge in registration in the 19th District. This year, the numbers have been flipped: Democrats have about 6,000 more registrants than Republicans – about 1.4 percent more. Those numbers are seven weeks old, however, the latest numbers that are expected this week from the secretary of state's web site are expected to show even more Democrats.