Sacramento County voters are expected to have a front-row seat to the national battle over the control of Congress in the November rematch between Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and Democrat Ami Bera.
But the results of their primary face-off this week didn't make that clear.
Both candidates easily made the general election runoff in the 7th Congressional District. But Lungren outpaced Bera by 13 points in Tuesday's balloting, roughly double the margin he won by in the 2010 general election.
The east Sacramento County seat is one of several California districts Democrats are targeting in their effort to win the 25 seats they need to regain a majority in the House of Representatives.
Republicans seized on the primary results there and in other targeted seats as a sign that Democrats won't meet their goal of picking up roughly one-third of the seats they need nationwide here in California.
"If you believed Nancy Pelosi when she said that 'the road to the majority runs through California,' then Democrats drove off the cliff last night," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato wrote in an email blast to reporters.
But the results of such a low-turnout primary current counts show just 26 percent of registered voters cast a ballot don't necessarily indicate how a much larger electorate will behave in November.
California Target Book publisher Allan Hoffenblum said Tuesday's turnout was too low "to make that kind of definite decision" about the competitiveness of races in November.
"It was a very low turnout and it was a conservative-skewed turnout," he said.
The general election typically attracts higher levels of Democratic turnout, particularly in presidential election years, when younger voters are considered more likely to participate. How much that helps Democrats depends in part on how well President Barack Obama does in driving voters to the polls, Hoffenblum and other observers say.
Eric McGhee, a policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said while some research has shown that increased turnout alone doesn't always dramatically change results, it could help campaigns "flip the needle" in some races.
"The potential for a hard-fought campaign changing the outcome is real, and the potential for a different electorate to change the outcome is real, but I don't think anybody can be certain of how much," he said.
As the clear front-runners for the runoff, neither campaign in the 7th Congressional District spent heavily leading up to the primary election.
Bera's campaign believes his message contrasting him with his rival on issues affecting the middle class and seniors, including Medicare, will make a big difference.
"It doesn't really change anything," Bera said of the primary results. "We've always been focused on November and winning the election Nov. 6."
Lungren's consultant Rob Stutzman acknowledges that increased turnout and other factors still project a tough race in the district, where the two major parties are virtually tied in voter registration.
But he said Tuesday's results suggest that the Gold River Republican carried independents and some Democrats, a trend that could help him win in November.
"You can't read too much into it; it is a clearly different electorate, but having said that, these numbers do matter, and it does speak to an underlying strength that I think Lungren has," he said.
He said voter frustration with the economy and dips in Obama's approval ratings could hurt Democrats down the ticket across the state.
One factor influencing the 7th Congressional District this year will likely be major spending by independent committees. Outside groups spent heavily in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign, largely to boost Lungren and attack Bera.
Democrats are also preparing to open their pocketbooks for California races this year. House Majority PAC, a super PAC created to elect Democrats, has set a goal of raising $8 million to spend in the state. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said California remains Democrats' "largest battlefield."
Crider said Democrats believe they could still pick up as many as six seats, despite disappointing outcomes in two key districts Tuesday.
Republicans Gary Miller and Bob Dutton secured the top two spots in San Bernardino County's 31st Congressional District, shutting Democrat Pete Aguilar out of the November ballot in a district where Democrats have a five-point voter registration advantage.
In another newly drawn Central Valley seat, the party's preferred candidate failed to advance to the runoff against Republican Assemblyman David Valadao. Some observers believe the outcome shores up Republicans' chances of winning the open seat.
Republicans are also aiming to unseat several Democratic incumbents. Top targets include the 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Kim Vann, a Colusa County supervisor, is challenging Democratic Rep. John Garamendi.
Republicans have also made the 24th Congressional District race a priority. Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara will face Republican Abel Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor and former state senator.