November 14, 2012

Dan Morain: Bera preps for 2014 even before 2012 election is called against Lungren

Rep. Dan Lungren, trailing by 3,824 votes a week after Election Day, has not conceded, and the ballots won't be tallied fully for several more days.

Rep. Dan Lungren, trailing by 3,824 votes a week after Election Day, has not conceded, and the ballots won't be tallied fully for several more days.

But after one of the most costly congressional races in the most expensive national campaign ever, Ami Bera, the Democrat who apparently has knocked the veteran Republican politician out of office, wasted no time in doing what incumbent politicians do – raising money.

At 10:32 a.m. three days after the election for the suburban Sacramento seat, an email fundraising pitch arrived in his supporters' inbox: "We are building a robust election protection effort to ensure that the Republicans do not disqualify ballots cast by eligible voters. It is unlikely that Congressman Lungren will concede – we expect him to fight it out to the bitter end."

Shortly before 4 p.m. on that same day, after Bera's lead had grown, the campaign emailed another pitch: "Widening our lead is terrific, but we need to make sure the Republicans don't find a way to steal this election. Every vote must be counted and every voice must be heard."

On Monday, six days after the election, Bera sent yet another appeal: "Now, Congressman Lungren sees his political career slipping away and might start getting desperate." More followed on Tuesday, and more will come in the days and months ahead.

Bera is a physician, and past associate dean for admissions at the UC Davis School of Medicine. He understands health care in a way that few in Congress ever could. But no matter how bright he may be, he will enter office knowing that he will face a serious challenge in two years.

Insiders already are contemplating the 2014 campaign. Among the names floated is Doug Ose, a developer and former congressman who represented the area from 1999 to 2005.

In 1998, Ose ran on a promise that he'd serve no more than three terms. Unlike many politicians who mouth support for term limits, Ose actually kept the promise, giving up the seat that Lungren won.

"First of all, the votes aren't counted," Ose told me, not ruling out a 2014 run. "I still hope Dan Lungren pulls it out. It is too early to say."

Any Republican running against Bera would face obstacles, not the least of which is the party itself. The California Republican Party is leaderless and nearly broke. The national party espouses policies on immigration and social issues that alienate vast swaths of California voters.

The California Democratic Party, by contrast, is on a winning streak.

Under chairman John Burton, the party identified 10 California congressional races as priorities and spent $3.5 million to win them, more than ever before.

The Democratic Party prevailed in seven of the 10, and leads in two others, the Bera-Lungren race and one in San Diego where Democrat Scott Peters appears to have unseated GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray. If trends continue, Democrats will hold as many as 38 California congressional seats to 15 for Republicans.

Another obstacle is the district, which runs from Elk Grove to Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights. The seat that Ose held and Lungren won in 2004 hewed Republican. In the latest redistricting, it tilted Democratic, and became more so after a late surge of Democratic registration.

Then there will be the question of money. This year's Lungren-Bera campaign will end up costing $14 million-plus. Bera has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, amassing $3 million into his 2012 campaign account, outpacing Lungren's $2.4 million.

Additionally, the two parties and outside groups spent $8.3 million on the Lungren-Bera race. Of that, $4.8 million was spent specifically to unseat Lungren. That was the second largest sum spent against any GOP congressional candidate in the country, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Republican-oriented outside groups spent $2.9 million to muddy Bera. At least 18 other Democrats weathered more costly barrages.

Too many of Lungren's votes were out of step with too many voters in the new district. Speaker John Boehner and congressional Republicans did Lungren no favors by taking hard-right stands on social issues and not helping enough with Lungren's attempt to gain authorization to obtain $1.4 billion to repair Sacramento River levees.

Even so, if Lungren comes up short, the Sacramento region will lose the one Republican in leadership who actually tried to deliver for the area. Bera will arrive as a neophyte in a house controlled by Republicans.

On Tuesday, Lungren was in Washington for the lame-duck session of Congress, chairing the administration committee that oversees freshman orientation. Bera was there for that orientation, and doing what incumbents do, raising money.

We can shake our heads at Bera for soliciting donations for the next race before the outcome of this race is fully determined. But no one realistically expects that spending on the fight for Congress will decline in 2014, or in any election after that. If Bera wants to remain part of the super-sized super PAC political system, he will have no choice.

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