Recent campaign fliers by Assembly candidate Ken Cooley are dominated by a large picture of a congressman he doesn't even support Dan Lungren.
The Rancho Cordova Democrat is running against Republican Peter Tateishi, but Lungren's shadow looms large and could tilt the outcome of the Sacramento County race.
Cooley, in a handful of fliers, trumpets Tateishi's service as Lungren's chief of staff to argue that the two have been a right-wing team pushing an extremist agenda.
"Peter Tateishi Perfect for Dan Lungren," the fliers say. "Too Conservative For Us."
For better or worse, Lungren, R-Gold River, is a campaign issue in the 8th Assembly District, from Citrus Heights to south of Wilton, overlapping much of Lungren's congressional district.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by a tight margin in the Assembly district four percentage points so the fate of both candidates may rest with the 17 percent of voters who are independent.
One Cooley flier says "Tateishi has helped guide Lungren's extremist agenda against women's rights," citing examples that include opposition to funding for Planned Parenthood.
Cooley, defending the approach, said Tateishi's "career trajectory has been carrying greater and greater responsibility on Lungren's behalf."
"I do think it matters," Cooley said.
Tateishi said that he is proud of his six years of service to Lungren, in various jobs, and he does not consider the lawmaker extreme. But "I'm not running a Tateishi-Lungren slate," he said.
Lungren strategist Rob Stutzman said Cooley's fliers prove that he has little of substance against Tateishi. The attack is not likely to sway independents, many of whom support Lungren, he said.
"Cooley is the one who has voted for taxes. On the fundamental issues that this district historically has voted on, he is on the wrong side of all of them," Stutzman said.
The latest slap at Tateishi through Lungren, who is running for re-election, is a TV ad by the Democratic Party.
"As a congressional staffer and Washington insider, Peter Tateishi helped pass special tax breaks for oil companies and millionaires, putting us deeper in debt," the ad says.
The reference to tax breaks stems from Lungren's vote to support a federal budget proposal by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The plan called for large spending cuts, major changes to Medicaid and Medicare, and a reduction in the tax rate for top earners and corporations.
Tateishi said that tying that vote to him, a staff member, is nonsense because Lungren acts on his own.
"I find it offensive that anyone would assume or believe that Mr. Lungren is some puppet," he said.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, said running as the top aide of a sitting lawmaker provides immediate connections and credibility, but also potential criticism.
"You're unavoidably riding (your boss's) coattails with their political connections, but everything you gain from that association is put at risk by what voters don't like about the association," Kousser said.
Tateishi said he sometimes worked with Lungren on policy matters but "usually they were district-oriented things." He helped Lungren guide through Congress last year a bipartisan measure to reduce paperwork burdens that small businesses could face from federal health care reform, he said.
Tateishi, who left Lungren's staff last September, said two key issues on which he differs from his former boss are the death penalty, which Tateishi opposes, and the GOP's no-new-taxes pledge, which he has not signed.
Tateishi said he considers himself a conservative, but not an extremist. He is a former member of the Carmichael Recreation and Parks District board and the Carmichael/Old Foothill Farms planning commission.
His priorities are jobs, schools and safety, he said, not social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage both of which he opposes.
Facing three other Republicans in a six-person field for the primary, Tateishi's ballot statement cited Lungren's support and used the word "conservative" three times.
"I'm a real conservative who stands up to ultra-liberal politicians," he wrote.
For the Nov. 6 election, however, Tateishi's candidate statement strikes the word conservative and does not mention Lungren.
"Send me to the state Assembly and I'll work across party lines," he wrote.
Cooley consultant Andrew Acosta said the change "calls into question who Tateishi is when he runs one race in the primary and a totally different race in the general election."
Tateishi said he simply saw the Nov. 6 ballot statement as an opportunity to detail policy priorities, not endorsements. "We haven't hidden anything," he said.