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Challengers nearly match fundraising hauls of incumbents in top California congressional races

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WASHINGTON — Some of the challengers in California's most competitive congressional races are showing strong fundraising for the first three months of the year, reinforcing how much an independent redistricting process has changed the political landscape and turned a handful of congressional seats into battlegrounds between the two parties.

Republicans have identified the 52nd Congressional District in San Diego as perhaps their best opportunity to defeat a Democratic incumbent. Supporters of Democratic Rep. Scott Peters are responding with robust fundraising for the freshman.

Peters brought in about $461,000 for the quarter and bumped his cash-on-hand to about $1.5 million. But Republican challenger Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego mayoral candidate, nearly matched him. He raised more than $400,000 and has more than $1.2 million in the bank.

DeMaio and Peters both have strong name identification with San Diego voters after serving on the City Council.

Meanwhile, Fred Simon, a surgeon, appears intent on turning the contest into a three-person race. The Republican raised just $14,000 from contributors but has loaned his campaign $1.3 million.

"The local papers are going to start writing about him. People are going to want to know more about him," Allan Hoffenblum, a political consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, said of Simon's investment. "It totally changes the complexion of that race."

Midnight Tuesday was the deadline for federal candidates to report their first quarter fundraising and spending totals to the Federal Election Commission.

Democrats view the 21st Congressional District just to the south of Fresno as one of their best pick-up opportunities. Republican Rep. David Valadao raised $322,000 for the quarter and has about $850,000 in the bank. The top Democratic challenger in the race, Amanda Renteria, a former political aide to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, raised about $293,000 during the quarter and has $424,000 in the bank.

In 2012, Valadao had a much larger advantage. Even though he outpaced Renteria during the first three months of the year, Democrats appear to be in a stronger financial position to compete in a district that President Barack Obama and Feinstein won handily in 2012.

Other freshmen lawmakers in difficult re-election battles this year include Democratic Reps. Ami Bera and Raul Ruiz. Both incumbents outperformed their competitors in fundraising.

Ruiz, whose district includes Palm Springs and stretches east through Joshua Tree National Park, raised more than $431,000 for the quarter. His campaign has about $1.5 million in the bank for a race that national Republicans have targeted. Meanwhile, the top GOP challenger, state Assemblyman Brian Nestande, raised about $145,000 for the quarter and has about $323,000 in the bank. Another Republican who got into the race late, former state lawmaker Ray Haynes, didn't raise any money but loaned the campaign nearly $15,000.

Bera, who represents a district east of Sacramento, raised more than the top three GOP challengers combined and has nearly $1.5 million in the bank. The question is which Republican will emerge from the June 3 election to face him in November — Doug Ose, Igor Birman or Elizabeth Emken. The three are splitting the contributions from Republican donors.

Ose, a former three-term member of Congress, has emerged as the strongest fundraiser among the top three GOP challengers. He raised nearly $230,000 for the quarter and also loaned his campaign another $250,000.

Birman, a favorite of tea party-aligned groups, raised about $111,000 for the quarter and spent $165,000, leaving him with just $70,000 in the bank. But he could get some help in the future from conservative groups unhappy with Ose.

A group called Gun Owners of America Inc. spent about $16,000 for mailing services in opposition to Ose. FreedomWorks and the group Tea Party Patriots could follow up their endorsements with independent expenditures if they believe it will make a difference.

Emken raised $110,000 for the quarter. She ran against Feinstein in the 2012 Senate election and hopes to parlay her enhanced name identification into a congressional seat. She has loaned her campaign $285,000 and opted to repay about a quarter of that loan, records showed.

She could benefit if the increasingly hostile contest between Birman and Ose turns voters off, Hoffenblum said.

Three candidates competing for an open seat in Southern California are drawing large donations.

Democrat Pete Aguilar, the mayor of Redlands, raised about $262,000 for the quarter and has more than $680,000 cash on hand in the race to succeed Republican Rep. Gary Miller. Eloise Gomez Reyes, a San Bernardino lawyer, nearly matched him. The Democrat raised more than $206,000 and has $535,000 in the bank.

Another Democrat, former Rep. Joe Baca, raised about $33,000 and had a little less than that in the bank.

On the Republican side, Lesli Gooch, a longtime aide to Miller, raised slightly more than $100,000. She also loaned her campaign that amount and has about $182,000 in the bank. Iraq War veteran Paul Chabot raised about $43,000 and has about $89,000 in the bank.

Miller declined to run for another term. He faced a tough re-election battle in a district where Democrats enjoy a 21,000-plus voter registration edge over Republicans.

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