To win a swing district in California, Carl DeMaio is running as a "next generation Republican." To try and keep the seat in Democratic hands, Rep. Scott Peters is determined to replace the first two words in DeMaio's description with "tea party," as he tries to counter the Republican's growing reputation as a moderate.
Peters's latest TV ad, released Thursday, sets the tone for his campaign's main argument: DeMaio may agree with Democrats on same-sex marriage, abortion, and some environmental issues, but his abrasive style on the San Diego City Council paints a picture of an anti-compromise hard-liner, they say.
"Carl DeMaio's hiding something, his allegiance to 'the tea party,' calling them 'our principles,' " the ad's narrator says, quoting DeMaio in clips from a video of him speaking to a tea-party group. The ad ties DeMaio to a tea-party-affiliated group that supported the October 2013 government shutdown, and links him to a 2011 Reason Foundation paper saying Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare voucher plan was too liberal. "DeMaio even told the tea party, 'I will owe "¦ you "¦ and our collective movement everything,' " the narrator continues.
DeMaio is one of only three openly gay Republicans running for Congress and has voiced support for gay marriage, abortion rights, and environmental protections. But the Peters campaign argues that he's no moderate, based on his economic record and governing style.
DeMaio said it shows he represents a threat to the status quo.
"The Democratic Party does not want the Republican Party to change," DeMaio said. "They're winning elections by painting the Republican Party with one broad brush as extremists."
The Democratic campaign has pointed to DeMaio's 102 lone "no" votes on city budgets and his reputation for abrasiveness as evidence that he was unwilling to compromise. They've sought to link him directly to conservatives, highlighting one case in which DeMaio compared himself to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, saying Cruz made a major impact as a freshman senator. They've pointed to his positions on economic issues, like when he reportedly vowed to "make San Diego the Wisconsin of the West," referring to the state's public-employee collective-bargaining strife. And they've questioned how hard he'll push back against his party on social issues, citing his lack of vocal opposition to Proposition 8, California's 2008 ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriage. Peters's campaign says he has more support among LGBT rights organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.
"San Diegans aren't fooled by Carl's new faux moderate rhetoric," Peters's campaign said in a statement. "Our TV and mail are just getting started and we have truth on our side."
But Peters has to be careful with that message, and he may have already slipped up. Last week, a video released by the Republican opposition research group America Rising showed Peters talking bluntly about DeMaio and other Republican candidates: "Now he's saying, 'Well, I'm a gay man. I must be moderate. And I'm pro-choice, I'm pro-environment.' And I've got to tell you, around the country, where people don't know him, they completely buy it. Carl DeMaio has gotten more—it's so unusual for them to see a gay man running as a Republican."
In the video, Peters then mentions San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, saying, "Our district attorney is a lesbian Republican. My wife says, 'Well who does she have lunch with?' "
He also mentions Mia Love, who is the favorite to win a House seat in Utah's 4th District, saying that Republicans "also don't have any African-Americans. They're going to get one in Mia Love in Utah. She's just a real right-wing person."
Spokesman Alex Roth said Peters stands by his statements, and that San Diego is "proudly ahead of the curve when it comes to electing LGBT leaders—but Carl DeMaio isn't a moderate."
But Republicans said the video reveals a hint of desperation. Republican strategist Kevin Spillane said the comments were "an insight into his psyche. He's feeling very vulnerable."
Aside from criticizing Peters's tone, DeMaio defended his willingness to compromise, pointing to when he built unanimous support for a city-contract transparency measure and a small-business regulatory relief proposal.
Despite those successes, DeMaio has publicly taken criticism for not doing enough to build majorities on the council. In 2012, Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders pushed back when DeMaio took credit for building support for a budget revision plan.
"He probably takes credit for my weight loss," Sanders said in a press conference. "He probably takes credit for the weeds I pulled in the backyard last week. It's all bullshit."
Likewise, former Democratic City Councilwoman Donna Frye called DeMaio a "grandstander who has no time for people who don't support his policies completely."
DeMaio doesn't deny that he was aggressive on the City Council. When asked what his reputation was like on the council, he said he offered "a bold agenda to solve problems." Spillane said that while DeMaio has made enemies, he's also seen as someone who got things done.
"The one thing you can't say about DeMaio is that he's not effective," Spillane said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Rep. Scott Peters's TV ad as his first of the cycle. It is his second ad.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.