The race between Rep. Jerry McNerney and Republican challenger Ricky Gill in many ways typifies California's dozen hot House battles: It's largely about the economy, President Obama's record and different philosophies of government.
But the 9th Congressional District race is also set apart by where it is and who's in it.
The GOP candidate is a son of Indian immigrants, lacking experience in politics and the workplace but strong on fundraising: Gill has raised about $2.34 million to McNerney's $1.96 million, reports show. And he'll need every penny of it as he takes on a three-term incumbent who enjoys the widest Democratic voter-registration edge he's ever had.
Pundits expect it to be a nail-biter: The Cook Political Report says the race leans McNerney's way, while Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg calls it a top prospect for a GOP upset. All eyes are on the outcome, as Democrats pursue a long-shot goal of picking up 25 seats to retake the House.
McNerney, 61, calls Gill a novice propped up by his parents' business ties. Gill turned 25 -- Congress' constitutional minimum age -- in May, five days before graduating from law school. He hasn't taken the California State Bar exam, so can't practice law yet. He's had no full-time job other than being a partner in his parents' farming and RV park businesses, where his duties have been unclear.
But redistricting made McNerney something of an outsider: He moved from Pleasanton to Stockton this year to live within the new lines. Gill, a Lodi native, calls him a liberal Bay Area carpetbagger whose experience isn't worth a plug nickel if it has left the region with a stagnant economy, ongoing water problems for agriculture, high gas prices, soaring health care costs and a share of the nation's debt.
"It's a Democratic district, but McNerney is not from the San Joaquin Valley," said Wesley Hussey, a Sacramento State government professor. "Gill has figured out that's going to resonate with voters."
Robert Benedetti, a University of the Pacific political science professor and panelist at Oct. 15's McNerney-Gill debate in Stockton, said redistricting gave McNerney more Democrats, but "valley Democrats tend to be more of the Blue Dog sort, more of the conservative sort."
McNerney can't automatically rely on those votes, Benedetti said, especially given that he was stronger in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties than in San Joaquin County in past elections.
San Joaquin now makes up more of the newly drawn district, which has less Contra Costa, some of Sacramento County and none of Alameda and Santa Clara counties.
At the recent Stockton debate, McNerney said his next term's priorities would be creating jobs and improving the local economy, protecting the Delta and serving veterans. He noted that he opposes the governor's plan for peripheral tunnels diverting Delta waters southward. And he cited his successful efforts to get a new veterans hospital in San Joaquin County.
Gill said he would work to speed the hospital's construction, but called McNerney a "Jerry-come-lately" to the tunnel issue. He also said McNerney opposed trade pacts that would've benefitted local agriculture, adding that McNerney "earned his F rating from the Farm Bureau."
McNerney said he won't support trade deals that prioritize certain sectors over others and cost American jobs. And he said he has worked to lower estate taxes and for a solid farm bill.
"McNerney ran on his record and was bringing it up a lot," Benedetti said. "Gill ran more on who he is and on criticizing McNerney, because he doesn't have a record."
But Gill "presented himself very well," he added. "He's a very polished public speaker and used his youth to good advantage."
Benedetti and Hussey said Gill's strong suit -- helping him earn national Republicans' "Young Gun" status and a speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa -- is fundraising, with support from the Indian-American community, Central Valley business interests and national GOP funders.
National party committees and super PACs have poured money into ad blitzes on both sides, so many District 9 residents can't turn on a TV, pick up a phone or open a mailbox without being reminded of the race.
Among those constituents are Tom and Pat Wilson, who hosted an event with Gill on Oct. 16 at their Stockton home.
Tom Wilson, 76, who's retired after co-owning an auto parts distribution company, decries the tax and regulatory burdens that government places on businesses.
"We need fresh blood in there," he said. "I don't think you have to be wise beyond your years to make sense. You have to have good principles and go by them, and if you can stick with that, you're in good shape."
But U.S. Army veteran Brandon Boller, 27, a registered Republican from Manteca, said he supports McNerney because of all the support McNerney gives veterans, including helping Boller navigate the bureaucracy after he was injured in Iraq.
"If you have any problems, he's an outstanding guy," he said. "Any time I've had a problem, he's had somebody call me back in like 30 minutes."
Candidate: Jerry McNerney
Hometown: Stockton (recently moved from Pleasanton)
Education: Bachelor's (1973), master's (1975) and Ph.D. (1981) in mathematics, University of New Mexico
Experience: Congressman since 2007; CEO of startup wind turbine company, 2004-07; wind energy consultant, 1994-2004; senior engineer at U.S. Windpower (Kenetech), 1984-94; engineering contractor at Sandia National Laboratories, 1979-85
Candidate: Ricky Gill
Education: Bachelor's degree in public policy, Princeton University (2009); law degree, UC Berkeley School of Law (2012)
Experience: Shareholder/partner in parents' farming business; intern at Oakland A's, 2010; intern at Sacramento Kings, 2007; intern with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, 2006; research assistant at Educational Testing Service, 2006; appointed student member of California State Board of Education, 2004-05
McNerney's voter registration margins
Here are the voter-registration statistics for Rep. Jerry McNerney's past and present elections:
2006 (11th District): 37.3% Democratic, 43% Republican, 16% no party preference
2008 (11th District): 39% Democratic, 40% Republican, 17.3% no party preference
2010 (11th District): 39% Democratic, 39.3% Republican, 17.6% no party preference
2012 (9th District): 45.1% Democratic, 35.3% Republican, 15.8% no party preference
Source: California Secretary of State's Office