Longtime GOP Rep. Dan Lungren has lost his seat in Congress to Democratic challenger Ami Bera in a close race to represent the eastern Sacramento County suburbs.
Lungren didn't concede Thursday night, but vote counts showed Bera's lead growing to almost 5,700 votes. Bera was ahead by just 184 votes on Election Day, and the margin has grown steadily as workers count tens of thousands of mail and provisional ballots.
Bera, in a phone call from Washington where he was attending training for new members of Congress, said "it does look like the voters of Sacramento County have spoken."
"They want us to move forward," said Bera, 47, an Elk Grove physician who has never held political office.
He said his election represents a fresh start for voters who are frustrated with partisan bickering and want to see Republicans and Democrats working together.
"This was the least productive Congress we've ever seen," Bera said.
The Associated Press called the race for Bera after Thursday's count was released.
Lungren campaign strategist Rob Stutzman said the Gold River Republican would not concede Thursday. "There's still ballots to count," Stutzman said.
Election officials said there are fewer than 39,000 votes – 7,700 mail ballots and the rest filed provisionally – left to tally countywide, and only a portion of those were cast in the Lungren-Bera race. The 7th District includes a little more than half the county's voters.
The Lungren-Bera race was one of the most closely watched congressional contests in the nation, with Democrats hoping Bera could help them retake the House. That effort fell short, though Democrats defeated at least one other Republican incumbent in California – Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs.
Lungren, 66, has represented the Sacramento region in Congress since January 2005, and represented a Southern California district for a decade in the late 1970s and 1980s.
This was the second time Bera challenged Lungren for the Sacramento-area seat. Lungren won his 2010 race against Bera by seven percentage points, buoyed by a more Republican-leaning district and a last-minute ad blitz by independent GOP political groups.
This year, Bera benefited from a redrawn district, and it was Democrats who opened their wallets. Pro-Bera forces, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, major nonprofit environmental groups and liberal super PACs, outspent Lungren's allies by more than $2 million.
The campaign by outside groups wasn't waged solely on the air. Other groups, including the liberal CREDO super PAC, union-backed Sacramento ACCE and the political arm of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, spent months conducting voter outreach and staging public protests against Lungren's conservative record.
Former President Bill Clinton campaigned on Bera's behalf, calling attention to Bera's support for abortion rights. Bera's campaign highlighted women's health issues in the final weeks of the campaign by inviting activist Sandra Fluke to attend a rally with supporters.
Bera said he constructed a campaign "from the ground up" with community events and a large grass-roots volunteer and fundraising base that gave him an edge in the closely split district.
He held hundreds of house parties, meeting with supporters, and built a ground game that included 1,500 active volunteers. His supporters made 235,040 phone calls and knocked on 83,957 doors in the final week of the campaign alone, he said.
"I think that at the end really made the difference, getting the community engaged," he said. "And as a congressman that's what I want to continue to do ... lead by listening."
Bera, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India in the 1950s, often stressed his California roots. He was born in La Palma and obtained undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of California, Irvine. He served as chief medical officer for Sacramento County, then joined the University of California, Davis, Medical School as a clinical professor and associate dean in 2004. He now manages several rental properties.
Lungren's life story has centered on Republican politics. His father was a friend and physician to former President Richard Nixon, and Lungren worked on Capitol Hill after graduating from law school.
He first ran for office in 1976, narrowly losing a Long Beach congressional seat. He was elected to the same district two years later and went on to serve a decade in Congress. He stepped down to take an appointment as state treasurer but was blocked from confirmation by legislative Democrats.
Lungren went on to serve eight years as attorney general and ran unsuccessfully as the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1998, losing to Democrat Gray Davis by 20 points.
He returned to Congress six years later, this time seeking a Northern California district. Lungren, who worked as a lawyer-lobbyist for Venable LLP in the early 2000s, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pushed him back into politics.
"That changed my life, it changed America forever," Lungren said in an October debate with Bera. "But I vowed that if I had the opportunity to go back into public service I would so that I could use the experience I had ... to do what was necessary to try to ensure that those who attacked us would not succeed and that we could use the tools that were necessary to protect us and at the same time, at the very same time, not be able to defeat us by having us give up our civil liberties."