Right race, right time

Will Lungren lose to anti-incumbent backlash, or ride the GOP tide?

Third Congressional District candidate Ami Bera of Elk Grove celebrates at a rally on the Fourth of July this past summer.

Third Congressional District candidate Ami Bera of Elk Grove celebrates at a rally on the Fourth of July this past summer.

To soften the pummeling they’re sure to get in November, Democrats are pumping up a handful of hopefuls who might knock out a few Republican incumbents. Elk Grove’s Ami Bera is one of them.

The Democratic newcomer has his eye on California’s 3rd Congressional District, the dominion of U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, the Republican from Gold River.

And national eyes are on Bera, 45, because he consistently out-fundraises the lawmaker in a district that saw a close race in 2008: For the House, Lungren, 64, won with less than a majority of the vote; for the White House, Barack Obama edged out John McCain by a half percent.

But is that enough for a novice to unseat an eight-term congressman?

Bera has attacked Lungren in TV ads, which accuse him of “spiking” his pension when he left state office; in more than a dozen press releases and news articles posted on www.beraforcongress.com; on a separate website (http://loopholelungren.com); and in frequent references during an interview with SN&R.

If Lungren is feeling the threat, he hardly shows it. He mentions Bera once on his campaign website, www.danlungren.com.

Walter Stone, a UC Davis political-science professor, points to two Republican advantages: First, that with Democrats in control of both legislative houses, the political cycle is due for an inevitable return to equilibrium; and second, that the Democrats are “going to get slapped” at the polls for the slow economic recovery.

Lungren, then, is in the right party this time around. He is also in the right district, one that leans conservative and has been represented by GOPers since 1998.

Add those assets to his name recognition and a reputation unscathed by scandal, and “all of that argues for a Lungren victory,” said Stone, who is studying the midterm elections, though not the Bera-Lungren contest in particular.

Still, Bera’s $1.6 million is nothing to scoff at. He has wowed his party with a fundraising prowess that repeatedly outshines Lungren, who by contrast has raked in $1.2 million in campaign donations.

Bera chalks up his financial success to anti-incumbent fervor, saying his opponent is bankrolled by corporate America and brings no fresh ideas to Capitol Hill.

“It’s time we get rid of these career politicians who only take care of themselves,” Bera told SN&R.

His ideas involve creating jobs by taking money away from Wall Street and government waste and pouring it into small businesses, education and clean energy.

As a doctor for more than 15 years, he also has a thing or two to say about health care. Bera was a dean of admissions at the UC Davis School of Medicine and a chief medical officer for Sacramento County.

He says he’s seen how medical legislation translates into real-world hospital situations and wants to return power to the individual. That is, equip physicians and patients to monitor and prevent fraud, and let people choose their own providers.

Lungren, too, is talkin’ ’bout a devolution. Control should shift from the federal government, he says, to state or even regional health-care systems.

Much as he’d like to see the health-care-reform bill repealed, the congressman is starting smaller. He introduced legislation to purge the bill of a tax-reporting requirement for any business that buys more than $600 of goods and services from another business.

Lungren, a former state attorney general and candidate for governor, has said the paperwork would disproportionately burden small businesses.

As for the fact that he trails in campaign contributions, Lungren is doing “what he needs to do to have the resources to win this race,” campaign manager Saulo Londono told SN&R. A poll released by Daly Kos last week showed Lungren leading Bera by eight points, 46 to 38.

Bera said 80 percent of his war chest comes from individual donors, unlike Lungren’s. “Special interests line his pockets,” Bera said. Indeed, Lungren has gotten half of his money from large political-action committees and from big corporate donors such as the American Bankers Association and Berkshire Hathaway, along with ultraconservative groups like Citizens United—which managed to get federal campaign-finance limits on corporations thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

But Bera has his own powerful interests backing him, including Kaiser Permanente and the American Federation of Teachers.