Jeff Denham started Denham Plastics in California's agricultural Central Valley three years ago, after learning the business as a vice president at plastic container maker Menasha Services.
Now, he hopes to add a new career - California state senator.
The 35-year-old is a relative neophyte in politics, but he's been thrust into one of California's most competitive and most watched legislative races this year.
Democrats and Republicans probably will pour more than $6 million into the race, according to news accounts and Denham's campaign staff, making it a more expensive contest than races for governor in some states.
The contest attracts all that attention because it's one of the state's few competitive districts, and a victory for Democrats could give them ``supermajority'' status in the state Senate, political observers said. Democrats control the Senate 26-14.
Denham, a Republican, is running on a platform that emphasizes his agricultural business and military background.
Denham Plastics and two sister companies distribute, repair and recycle plastic produce containers to farmers around Modesto, Calif. The Salinas-based firms are small and employ 10-20, plus seasonal help.
``You've got someone who very much understands and lives the [plastics] industry,'' Denham said. ``Our industry definitely needs one of its own to represent our views.''
If elected, Denham would be the only legislative member with direct plastics industry experience, said Tim Shestek, an American Plastics Council lobbyist in Sacramento, Calif.
Still, Denham said he did not reach out to the state's plastics industry political action committees for support, focusing instead on the agricultural industry and money from the state Republican Party. Shestek said the industry's PAC was aware of Denham's bid but donated to the Republican leadership so they could spend the funds where they saw fit.
Denham's campaign literature emphasizes general themes like fiscal policy, education and property and water rights. But on topics closer to plastics, he said he would like to see the state try incentives to boost recycling, rather than the current law mandating recycled content in some plastic containers.
Denham admits the race is a ``bit of a pressure cooker,'' full of long days of speeches, keeping up with press coverage, fund raising and time in the car. It takes four hours to drive across the mammoth, rural district.
It's not his first political bid. Denham ran for the state Assembly in 2000, running a solid campaign that, according to the Modesto Bee newspaper, outpolled both Republican registration and George W. Bush in the Democratic-leaning district.
His current Senate bid also is in a Democratic-leaning district, but Denham said his polling shows he and Democrat Rusty Areias are even.
Denham indirectly owes his current bid for the 12th District Senate seat to an unusual source - embattled Congressman Gary Condit, who was defeated in the Democratic primary in March.
The 12th District overlaps much of Condit's district. When Condit's relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy surfaced, the 12th's current senator, a Republican, decided to try for Condit's seat in Washington.
That opened the state seat for Denham's challenge. He had a fight in the primary election with a former Republican legislator, and has been outspent by his Democratic opponent, according to the Modesto Bee.
The campaign has had some ugly overtones. Denham highlights his opponent's tax problems, and newspaper stories have talked about Denham's involvement with his neighbors in lawsuits fighting low-income housing near their subdivision. He told local papers he and his neighbors were upset that developers misled them.
Still, there's more than a week left in a campaign that certainly could not be described as dull.
``There's going to be a lot of money spent and I'm waiting to see what happens next,'' Denham said.