WASHINGTON -- Congressional candidate Brian Whelan has a lot to prove.
Running his first House race, the 28-year-old Republican attorney from Fresno is trying to show election-hardened political pros that he has what it takes to topple Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Much of it boils down to raising money. In politics, money raised is a magnet for more.
"What they're concerned about is, 'Is this person someone who attracts other people into the race?' " Whelan said Wednesday.
It's a chicken-and-egg conundrum, Whelan acknowledged after several days of Capitol Hill meetings with GOP lawmakers, Republican operatives and lobbyists.
Running in the newly redrawn 16th Congressional District, spanning Merced and Madera counties and parts of Fresno County, Whelan needs money to make his case against an incumbent first elected to public office in 1978.
But in order to lure political action committees and big donors, Whelan must first show that he's independently capable of collecting money on his own.
In the northern San Joaquin Valley, for instance, Lodi resident and first-time candidate Ricky Gill has been named to the House Republicans' closely watched "Young Gun" program in large part because of his proven ability to raise money in challenging Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.
All told, seven Republican House candidates in California have been named to the "Young Gun" program. They include David Valadao from Hanford, running for an open seat, and Kim Vann from the Sacramento Valley, running against Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.
"If you look at the challenge of what's going on in California now, Republicans are in a good position," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said Wednesday, adding that "I think we out-recruited (Democrats)."
Whelan has been named to the less-selective "On the Radar" program overseen by the National Republican Congressional Committee. This week, the status facilitated such activities as participation in an NRCC "candidate's school," as well as strategy meetings including one Wednesday with Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Visalia and Jeff Denham of Turlock.
"They want this seat very badly," Whelan said.
Whelan reported raising $274,234 since announcing his candidacy. He had $138,144 in the bank as of June 30, with campaign debts of $52,577.
Costa has raised $916,565 this election cycle and had $288,173 available as of June 30, with no lingering campaign debts.
Democrats hold a 14-percentage-point voter registration advantage in the district, and Barack Obama whomped Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 by a 57%-to-40% margin.
Whelan, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Rutgers University Law School, counters by pointing to the San Joaquin Valley's well-known population of "conservative Democrats" and by citing a recent internal poll that he says shows his campaign is "within striking distance" of Costa.
He declined to provide specific data from the poll.
The 16th Congressional District seat remains "Likely Democratic," according to the independent Cook Political Report; the independent Rothenberg Political Report identifies the seat as "Democrat Favored."
The horse-race emphasis and avid attention paid to fundraising totals can become frustrating, Whelan acknowledged. He said he'd rather focus on issues and policy. In some cases, he's firm on what he'd like, such as more water for San Joaquin Valley water storage. In considering other controversies, like a proposed multibillion-dollar tunnel to convey Sacramento River water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, he said he's still gathering information.
"I see both sides of the argument," Whelan said.