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Peters Vs. DeMaio — A Closer Look At Their Contentious Congressional Race

Reported by Katie Schoolov

The race for San Diego's 52nd Congressional District has attracted national attention and money. That's because it's one of the few House races that's a toss up. KPBS reporter Claire Trageser tells us about the two men competing for the seat.

The race between incumbent Democratic Rep. Scott Peters and Republican Carl DeMaio for San Diego's 52nd Congressional District is one of the few House races that's a toss up this November.

Two years ago on election night, Scott Peters didn't know if he'd won a seat in Congress. It took three days for him to find out he'd beat incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray by just under 7,000 votes.

This time, his re-election could be just as close. A poll this week by U-T San Diego and 10 News shows the Democrat in a statistical tie with his Republican challenger, Carl DeMaio.

Carl DeMaio

Age: 40

Hometown: Dubuque, Iowa

College: Georgetown University

Previous Jobs:

Founder of the Performance Institute; founder of American Strategic Management Institute; and San Diego city councilman, 2008-2012

Residence: Rancho Bernardo

Website: carldemaio.com

Scott Peters

Age: 56

Hometown: Springfield, Ohio

College: Duke University, New York University School of Law

Previous Jobs:

San Diego deputy city attorney; environmental lawyer; San Diego city councilman, 2000-2008; San Diego port commissioner, 2008-2012

Residence: La Jolla

Website: scottpeters.com

But during an interview in Peters' Kearny Mesa campaign office, which is decorated with Avengers action figures and swarmed with millennials making phone calls to raise money and recruit volunteers, he seemed prepared for another nail biter.

"I've had eight election nights, three have lasted a week, and two of those were in 2012, so we win the close ones," Peters said.

The race for the 52nd District has attracted more than $3.5 million in outside spending, not including money spent on non-candidate issue ads. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have spent more than $1.6 million each and have filled commercial breaks with nasty TV ads.

"Congressman Scott Peters is worth over $40 million, one of the richest in Congress," a female narrator says with disdain in an NRCC ad. "But Peters wanted more, voting himself two huge pay raises."

"Another politician who owes the Tea Party everything," another female narrator says sadly in a DCCC ad, while footage of frowning children rolls. "Carl DeMaio's exactly what's wrong with Washington."

Photo caption: Carl DeMaio attends an election night party for Kevin Faulconer, Feb. 11, 2014.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Carl DeMaio attends an election night party for Kevin Faulconer, Feb. 11, 2014.

The 52nd District's voter registration is almost evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, so both DeMaio and Peters are spending a lot of time painting themselves as moderate and each other as extreme.

52nd Congressional District

Geography: Runs north from Coronado to La Jolla, and then east to include Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, Poway and Rancho Bernardo.

Party breakdown: 33.6% Republican, 32.1% Democrat, 29.2% independent

Source: California Secretary of State

Special Feature 2014 Congressional Races

The candidates in each of the five congressional races in San Diego County.

Peters hasn't hesitated to paint his opponent as a tea party extremist.

"What I've laid out is a very stark difference between me and a record of being a problem solver, being rewarded by my colleagues with leadership positions because they trust me, and Mr. DeMaio, who's really been the local version of the tea party, someone who's been on the outside, throwing rocks in," Peters said. "I just don't think we need any more of that in Congress."

DeMaio wouldn't be interviewed for this story, but he defends himself against the tea party label repeatedly, including during a recent NBC San Diego debate.

"Wait, wait, wait, Scott. Let's just stop right here," DeMaio said, turning to face Peters. "You want to continue to apply labels to me because you can't defend your own record. So you can call me names all you want. I haven't sat there and called you names. I have issues that I disagree with you on, and there are differences in our records and how we've approached issues. But to sit there and say, 'I'm going to call my opponent a tea party right wing nut job extremist, Scott, it's dishonest, it's divisive and it's what's wrong with politics today."

In a KPBS questionnaire, both candidates stated similar stances on many issues. Both said they want to make some changes to the Affordable Care Act, but would continue to guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Both believe climate change is real, although DeMaio said we should continue to research humans' impact on it. Neither wants to restrict a woman's right to an abortion.

More: Read each candidate's stance on immigration, gun control, legalizing marijuana and other issues.

But Peters said DeMaio's moderate stances are new. Peters pointed out he's been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, while DeMaio has never filled out the group's questionnaires.

"I think two or three weeks ago he held his first press conference on women's issues, didn't even have anything on his website, and came out supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which has already been on the books for five years, so it's about time," Peters said. "He supported the Republican birth control idea, which provides birth control over the counter but doesn't provide a guarantee that it will be paid for, and would take away overtime in place of compensatory time. That was his women's program, and that's three weeks old."

DeMaio repeatedly attacks Peters for taking government perks while serving in Congress and on the San Diego City Council. In a Carl DeMaio for Congress ad, a male narrator calls out "Privileged Peters, a millionaire" who "elected to take a taxpayer-funded car allowance to pay for his luxury BMW. This is the same Privileged Peters who lives in this luxury home and double-dipped on taxpayers by taking his pension early."

Peters said he took the same car allowance as every other council member, he donates his city pension to libraries and he returned $140,000 of his City Council salary.

Up until March 2008, all council members took $9,600 a year in car allowance. Peters and four other city leaders stopped taking the allowance later that year.

The Peters campaign provided KPBS with two signed donation forms from the San Diego Public Library Foundation showing he gave $25,000 each year between 2010 and 2014. His city pension was $20,703 last year, according to financial disclosure forms.

San Diego's comptroller office confirmed that Peters returned $139,827.62 of his salary during his tenure on the City Council.

"The whole thing's ridiculous, because the whole discussion doesn't create a job, doesn't educate a kid, doesn't provide for anyone's retirement," Peters said.

Photo caption: Rep. Scott Peters talks with volunteers in his campaign office on September 2...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Rep. Scott Peters talks with volunteers in his campaign office on September 26, 2014.

Peters said his biggest achievement so far in Congress is helping San Diego's delegation work well together.

"The nicest compliment I got was when (Republican Congressman) Darrell Issa told the Regional Chamber of Commerce that we have five members of Congress here who like each other and can work together," he said. "That's a big step forward for our delegation, and there are a lot of things that have come out of that, in terms of border funding, military issues, taking care of veterans."

DeMaio told KPBS's Amita Sharma in June that if elected, he hopes to focus on a fiscal agenda.

"We should have our elected officials focused on the issues that actually are relevant, like the national debt, getting jobs created, making sure that we provide quality services, particularly for our veterans, for example," he said. "The list goes on and on of programs that people look to that are not meeting the mark and that's where our elected officials should be spending their time and their energy."

DeMaio and Peters will keep fighting to win over undecided voters until the Nov. 4 election.

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