Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks is woefully underfunded compared to her main competitors in California's 26th District primary. An independent, she doesn't have a party apparatus or a natural donor base to lean on. Parks's son made her website. And she's running her congressional campaign out of her house - an initial call to the phone number on Parks's website went to a voicemail message that said, "You've reached the Parks residence, and Linda Parks for Congress."
Despite that, Parks has national Democrats scared that she could cost the party a much-needed seat in Congress. As a moderate independent in a crowded race, Parks is positioned perfectly to take advantage of California's new all-party, top-two primary. The 26th District, which is just up the Pacific coast from Los Angeles, gave President Obama over 55 percent of its vote in 2008, but four Democrats are splitting votes on the left while the lone Republican, state Sen. Tony Strickland, has consolidated the right. The favored Democratic candidate, state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, is rapidly building up her profile, but Parks has an opening to finish second in the primary and deny Democrats a spot in a general election they hope to win.
All this from a candidate who said, in an interview last week, "I think if I make it into the general election, the campaign will exponentially grow and we'll get an office then."
To keep that scenario at bay, Democratic-aligned outside groups have unloaded a torrent of advertising, hoping to buck up Brownley relative to Parks in time for the June 5 election. House Majority PAC, a national Democratic super PAC, has spent over $700,000 on television ads touting the Democrat and mail hitting Parks for profligacy with Ventura County funds. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has done mailers linking Parks to Republicans like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and saying she would "end Medicare." Other groups have brought the total spending to keep Parks out of the general election over $1 million.
Even Strickland is getting in on the act a bit, though he isn't attacking Parks. But the Republican would surely prefer to run against a Democrat in November, so Strickland's campaign mailers are not-so-subtly touting him as "independent," to cut into Parks's support from the right.
Both parties are right to fear Parks, who has been registered with each of them in the past. She opposes the Ryan budget plan, but budget-cutting and protecting the environment and Ventura County's open spaces get equal play in her platform -- the Los Angeles Times specifically cited those two as reasons for endorsing Parks. She consistently implores both parties to work together and reminds voters that she doesn't take PAC money, a pair of stands that have rarely been so popular with voters.
The lack of special interest money hamstrings her a bit, but Parks's campaign bets that the resonance of the principle will make up for it. "I think it sends a great message," Parks said. "One of my goals in Congress is to curtail special interest spending; it leaves the public out in the cold. That's why I'm getting outspent now."
Parks isn't quite the perfect, model moderate candidate we're told America yearns for, though. Sometimes she brought both sides along with her independent viewpoint, but Parks also developed a reputation for "intransigence," a word the Ventura County Star once used to describe her -- in an endorsement editorial, no less. Some consider her to be more non-cooperative than bipartisan, after a number of county votes as the sole dissenter over the years.
Parks's middle-of-the-road appeal also leaves her vulnerable to getting squeezed from both sides, which is what the Democrats and Strickland are trying to do now. Parks's opposition to the Ryan budget and environmentalism give her an opening with progressives, but the League of Conservation Voters is one of the groups boosting Brownley, because they don't see Parks as a strong-enough advocate. "She's been all over the place on some of these issues, as opposed to Brownley being a consistent champion in the state legislature," said Navin Nayak, the League's senior vice president for campaigns.
The main question, though, is whether moderate and independent voters will turn out to support Parks on June 5. This is California's first primary open to all voters since 2000, and Parks's base isn't used to voting in the spring. "I have to mobilize the grassroots for a ground campaign" in the last week, Parks said. "There hasn't been much education done. So we're letting people know they can vote."
Perhaps even more than the Democrats' money advantage -- and candidates with the most spending on their side do typically win open seat House primaries -- the issue of turnout most heartens the Democratic establishment ahead of Tuesday's primary. Many people like the idea of voting independent, a Democratic strategist noted, but they're not the type of voter who has been known to turn out for the first round. "I don't have my head wrapped around what would motivate independent voters to turn out for the primary," the strategist said. "It's a question of whether they can succeed with a get-out-the-vote strategy."
Put another way, nobody quite knows what to expect from Parks and California's 26th District next Tuesday. The state's open, blanket primary has upset many conventional expectations about running a House race in the state, and Parks is the most significant symbol of the chaos the system could cause.