TORRANCE, Calif.—Coastal California is Democratic turf, where the party often rolls up landslide victories for its candidates. In 2008, President Barack Obama scored a 31-point win in the 36th Congressional District, which runs from the famous Venice boardwalk through the beaches south of Los Angeles International Airport.
But this is a different year.
In a season of turbulent politics, a little-noticed runoff election Tuesday for the House seat vacated by former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman has become unusually competitive.
Supporters for the Democratic candidate, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, are jittery, while Republicans see a potential upset in the making for businessman Craig Huey, who owns marketing and advertising companies and has largely bankrolled his campaign with at least $795,000 in personal funds.
"This is the West Coast's `Scott Brown moment,'" the conservative California Republican Assembly wrote to supporters in an email Friday, referring to the Republican senator's upset in Massachusetts last year. Brown won a special election for the Senate seat long held by Democratic Party icon Edward M. Kennedy.
In May, Democrats picked off a New York congressional seat in a heavily Republican district after capitalizing on fears over a Republican plan to roll back Medicare and Social Security benefits, making the GOP eager to turn the tables in California, a reliably Democratic state in national elections.
GOP activists say a Huey upset could be a harbinger for U.S. national elections next year, but it may have little meaning for 2012 in California because legislative and congressional districts are being redrawn by an independent commission.
Despite a commanding 18-point registration edge for Democrats in the district, tallies of mail-in ballots suggest a potentially tight finish. Hahn remains the favorite, but the likelihood of a paltry turnout in a mid-summer special election means a small number of votes could swing the result.
In a state with double-digit unemployment, a housing crisis and government budget problems "voters are cranky and don't feel good about what's going on," said veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.
"The potential for surprises in elections -- not just in this election, but in the next year or so -- are pretty high," Carrick added.
One unknown is the role of independent voters, who account for 22 percent of the district's electorate. Statewide, voters who decline to state a party preference typically side slightly more with Democrats than Republicans, but also tend to be unpredictable and more fiscally conservative than typical Democrats.
Huey was able to mobilize the district's conservative and tea party voters during the May primary, where he scored a narrow -- and somewhat surprising -- victory over Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the third-place finisher. Many had expected Hahn and Bowen to finish 1-2 in the first congressional election under California's new top-two primary system. If no candidate clears 50 percent of the vote to win outright in the primary, the contest is decided in a runoff between the top two finishers.
Tuesday's election provides a stark choice: Hahn, 59, is a labor-backed liberal eager to see the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and growth in the alternative-energy industry; the conservative Huey, 61, has attacked Obama's leadership while promising to help his party slash spending, taxes and debt in Washington.
Underscoring the stakes, the California Republican Assembly is busing in volunteers from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego to knock on doors for Huey. Hahn's campaign, which has been piling up debt, pleaded Friday for supporters to send at least $11 to help pay for volunteers to knock on doors.
Organizing for America, the group that provides the Democratic Party's foot-soldiers, is appealing to supporters to make thousands of phone calls.
Retiree Ann Dupuy is a loyal Democrat who has watched a forest of Huey lawn signs sprout in her Redondo Beach neighborhood. She said her son, visiting from Texas, is so alarmed that Hahn might lose that he plans to volunteer for her campaign while he's in California.
Does Dupuy see much enthusiasm for Hahn?
"No," she answered.
With the election scheduled for a July day "it's hard to get people stoked up," she said.
The district's voting history and registration give some perspective to Huey's challenge.
Harman held the seat for eight terms before resigning earlier this year to run a Washington think tank, and in 2008 was re-elected in a 37-point win. Democrats hold a registration edge of 45 percent to 27 percent over Republicans.
Both campaigns have pooled more than $1 million for the race, although Huey's money has come mostly as loans from his own pocket.
Huey has focused his campaign on the economy, but less visible has been his courtship of social conservatives and the church community.
An opponent of abortion rights and gay marriage, Huey has been endorsed by the Government is Not God political committee, which supports candidates "who stand firmly against the unbiblical welfare state." The group supports some of the most conservative members of Congress, and last year backed Nevada Republican Sharron Angle in her bid to oust Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Huey is active in social networking -- one Twitter account, which mixes Bible quotes and political commentary, is intended to "help Evangelical Christians vote their values."
He calls Obama's health care overhaul "one of the most irresponsible pieces of legislation in modern history" and has railed against "career politicians," an obvious reference to Hahn.
Hahn is the scion of a political family that counts a Los Angeles mayor and legendary Los Angeles County supervisor in its ranks. She has won a string of high-profile Democratic endorsements, including from former President Bill Clinton.
Her videos have sought to link Huey to Sarah Palin and refer to his agenda as "extremist."
Both sides agree on one thing: The outcome will be decided by turnout -- which campaign does a better job of identifying supporters and getting them to the polls.
That might not be easy, given the sour mood of many voters.
Anne Backes of Torrance, a civil engineer and registered Republican, said she expected to vote Tuesday but is undecided.
In recent years "every election I've voted in, I feel like it's the lesser of two evils," said Backes, 49, standing outside a local library. "I'm disappointed in general in the whole system.