Democrat Ami Bera clung to a razor-thin lead Wednesday in his fight to unseat Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in the 7th Congressional District, with ballot counting in the close race expected to stretch into next week.
The two-time rivals for a suburban Sacramento swing seat spent Tuesday night locked in a near tie, with both candidates pulling ahead by margins of fewer than 1,000 votes at different points in the night.
Bera late Wednesday led by just 186 votes out of more than 176,000 ballots counted.
The race for the east Sacramento County seat is far from over. Election officials said Wednesday that they still need to process 162,000 absentee and 31,000 provisional ballots cast countywide.
A close registration split between the two parties and a flood of outside spending rendered the battle between Lungren and Bera one of the country's most competitive and costly congressional contests.
There's now a chance it is also the nation's No. 1 nail- biter.
Sacramento County Registrar Jill LaVine said Wednesday that the U.S. Committee on House Administration, which is chaired by Lungren, told her it is sending observers to monitor the count in what it called the closest congressional race in the country.
The call came from the committee's deputy general counsel Peter Schalestock, who she said told her "We'll be arriving (Thursday) to observe" with two Republicans and two Democrats from Washington, D.C.
While it wasn't clear how many of the unprocessed ballots include votes in the 7th Congressional District, both campaigns expect the number to be significant.
Lungren's campaign manager estimated that there could be tens or hundreds of thousands of unprocessed ballots remaining, telling supporters in an email Wednesday that "we may not know the outcome of this race for days or even weeks."
"We remain cautiously optimistic and will monitor the final count closely," Jeff Wyly wrote in an email.
Bera campaign manager Josh Wolf agreed there could "easily be tens of thousands" of ballots left.
"We are very optimistic, but there's a long road ahead," Wolf said in an interview. "It's going to be at least a couple of days, if not significantly longer."
Alice Jarboe, the assistant to LaVine, characterized the number of unprocessed ballots Wednesday morning as "record-breaking." The county is expected to issue its next report with updated results Friday.
"Both (campaigns) are sitting on pins and needles, and really want the results now," she said. "I understand that, but the results will come when they come kind of like a baby."