Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

California's 3rd Congressional District: Dan Lungren vs. Ami Bera

It isn't surprising that California's 3rd District, in the Sacramento suburbs, was a Republican stronghold for a decade prior to the last election — first with former Representative Doug Ose and then, starting in 2004, with Dan Lungren. California congressional districts are heavily gerrymandered and designed to keep incumbents safe. But in 2008, when Barack Obama won the district by half a point, Lungren showed vulnerability, beating challenger Bill Durston, a physician who received no support from national Democrats, by only 50% to 44%.

With the 2008 scare, and with U.S. Census data showing an increase of minorities in the area over the past few years, Democrats decided to make a more serious run for the seat. They initially tried to persuade former Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi to run in the district, but he opted for the 10th Congressional District, winning a special election held in 2009 after Representative Ellen Tauscher was confirmed as Obama's Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Instead, the party rallied around another doctor. Amerish "Ami" Bera, whose parents emigrated from India 50 years ago, is relatively unknown in the political arena. His sole government experience is a five-year stint as medical director and then chief medical officer of Sacramento County. He spent the past few years in academia, teaching and serving as the associate dean of admissions at UC-Davis Medical School. Despite his lack of political experience, Bera has impressive fundraising numbers: according to October FEC reports, he has raised upwards of $450,000 more than his opponent. But Bera has also spent a lot more than Lungren, leaving him with less than half the cash on hand the incumbent has in the bank.

Much of Bera's money has gone toward attack ads against Lungren. He went on the air in early September with a scathing TV spot bashing Lungren, a former state attorney general, for accepting both a congressional salary and a pension from the state in his last month in office. Bera has also reprised footage of a shirtless Lungren shown at an upscale Hawaiian resort in early 2008 while he was on a lobbyist-funded vacation (Durston also used this footage in 2008, but Bera's buy is significantly bigger). The trip itself was legal — Lungren cleared it with the House ethics committee in advance — but Bera says his opponent violated the spirit of the law barring members of Congress from accepting gifts of travel from lobbyists.

Lungren has told the local media he's a victim of "gotcha politics" but that he's a "big boy" who can handle the attacks. His strategy is to tie Bera to the national Democrats, and in his latest TV ad, he calls his opponent a "Pelosi clone." He is also using the economy as an issue in this Northern California district, an area of the country racked with foreclosures and hit particularly hard by the housing bust.

Bera has also dealt with his share of controversy — in August, he was forced to reject a $250 donation from Basim Elkarra, the executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Bera returned the money after Lungren's campaign and California Republicans raised concerns about the national group because two of its former members are allegedly tied to the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, though the Sacramento chapter itself hasn't been linked to any wrongdoing.

Bera has tried to position himself as the anti-incumbent, but he isn't turning away help from the party. In early September House majority leader Steny Hoyer campaigned with Bera at the Sacramento VA Medical Center, meeting with ailing veterans. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's west regional press secretary, Andrew Stone, says there will likely be more party leaders heading into town.

Overall, the Democrats see this seat as a legitimate pickup opportunity. Bera is one of 27 participants in the party's Red to Blue program, aiming for places a Democrat can unseat a Republican in the House. But despite the excitement around Bera, it will be an uphill battle. A mid-September poll by Public Policy Polling shows Lungren ahead by eight percentage points, 46% to 38%, in a district that already leans Republican. National polls point to a Republican tide this November, and Obama won't be on the ticket this time around to help give a down-ballot boost. More important, Republicans aren't taking this seat for granted as they did two years ago.