Elections are fickle. Months and years of planning, fundraising, and strategizing can all be derailed by an ill-timed photo, a rainy day, or an oddly shaped ballot. And that's all the more true when few voters make their way to the polls, leaving candidates at the mercy of the most minor of nudges.
Such is the fate of California Democrat Ami Bera, a first-term House member locked a close race against former Republican Rep. Doug Ose. As Bera asks Democrats to turn out Tuesday, he's not getting much help from the top of the party's ticket, part of the reason why his fate is expected to hang in the hands of an exceptionally small electorate.
Without a presidential election, Bera's next tier down of available star power was California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown—but even Brown himself isn't putting much effort into that noncompetitive race: The incumbent waited to make his first campaign appearance until just eight days before Election Day.
And without help from the top of the ticket, Bera is hoping for help at the bottom. There's a race going on in the state Senate, and poll watchers are wondering whether that is Bera's best hope to turn out the base he needs.
Consider this: State Senate districts actually cover more people than current congressional races in California. And Bera's race overlaps with a particularly expensive campaign between two Democrats, state Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan, which has attracted $2.65 million in outside spending and is all about motivating core Democratic supporters.
There's no guarantee that all that spending will do anything for Bera. It's all focused on two Democrats—thanks to California's top-two primary system—and it could backfire: The state race's flood of negative ads may actually dissuade Democrats from voting.
"The only thing I know is they're getting awfully tired of the TV commercials up there," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book.
Nevertheless, it might be Bera's best chance at benefiting from another California election. "A state Senate race might not be as exciting as what you'd see in a presidential cycle but anything helps," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a California-based consulting group that provides voter information.
If it does lead to higher turnout for Democrats, it would mitigate what looks like a slow start to Bera's race. In Bera's district, new voter-registration numbers and absentee-ballot returns have been even lower this cycle than in 2010, according to numbers tracked by Mitchell's firm.
The more Dickinson and Pan spend to win over Democratic voters, the better it is for Bera, said Matt Rexroad, a Republican consultant and Yolo County supervisor, adding that in order to win, Bera must "dynamite people off their couches and get them to the polls."
But the top-two primary system, instituted in California before the 2012 elections, is still new and has proven difficult for congressional campaigns to predict. It's possible the state Senate race might have no effect at all, Mitchell said.
"If you're working Democrat-versus-Republican, you are trying to spike Democratic turnout," he said. "In Democrat-versus-Democrat or Republican-versus-Republican, blindly turning out people in your party could hurt as much as help. The money goes more toward persuasion."
Now that Pan is facing a fellow Democrat, he has shifted to the right and has attempted to win over independents and Republicans. One of the major contrasts between the candidates is over medical tort reform: Pan, a pediatrician, has aligned himself with conservatives in supporting a state law that caps health care providers' liability on medical injuries—a cap Dickinson wants to repeal.
That dynamic shows up in some of the outside spending that has turned this into a high-profile race: Although much of the money in the race has come from labor-affiliated groups, even more has come from groups focused on medical tort reform, including $1.3 million from Californians Allied for Patient Protection, according to ElectionTrack.com.
Republicans won't likely be dissuaded from going to the polls because of a state Senate race—even in California.
"We can vote, and we can vote for anyone we want," said Tony Quinn, a Republican consultant and an editor of the California Target Book. "I am getting huge amounts of mail from candidates telling me they're more moderate."
Bera's race has also attracted huge sums of money: about $12 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including major expenditures from both parties' national House committees, the American Action Network, the Congressional Leadership Fund, American Crossroads, House Majority PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But that hasn't changed the expectation that Bera will struggle to turn out Democratic voters.
"It's an extraordinarily low-interest election in California," said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, who runs AroundtheCapitol.com, a political website. "It will have an impact, and none of us know what that impact is."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
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.