Two years after eking out a slender re-election victory, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera again faced an uncertain outcome late Tuesday night as he built a slight but not decisive lead over his Republican opponent.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Bera led Republican Scott Jones by just over a percentage point, a margin that left the race too close to call. That raised the prospect of the district not being decided until well after Election Day, echoing a 2014 race in which Bera trailed after polls closed but prevailed after the remaining ballots were tallied nearly two weeks later.
The expensive race saw both candidates and their parties lob blistering character attacks across suburban Sacramento County as Jones, the Sacramento County sheriff, sought to deny Bera a a third term in Congress.
The tight margin reaffirmed the 7th Congressional District’s swing district status. If Bera’s lead holds, the Elk Grove physician will tie the late Democratic Rep. Dalip Singh Saund, an Imperial Valley farmer, for the most number of House re-elections by an Indian American.
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Bera raised $3.6 million and spent $3.3 million while Jones, who took in nearly $1.2 million, had spent about $1.1 million, as of Oct. 19. Outside groups spent nearly $9 million – $5.1 million to help Jones and $3.85 million to aid Bera.
Bera, who snatched the seat from Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in 2012 and defended the district two years ago against GOP ex-Rep. Doug Ose in the nation’s most expensive House race, faced what appeared to be his toughest electoral challenge. While Jones, a popular law enforcement official, pressured Bera from the right, liberal activists throughout the early stages of the race expressed dissatisfaction with Bera from the left.
A small but vocal cadre of labor, progressives, veterans, Latinos and Arab Americans charged Bera, a centrist who highlights his work across the aisle, with being too quick to appease Republicans. Incensed over his stance on trade, the unions battered Bera and temporarily scuttled his Democratic Party endorsement.
But as he moved closer to the primary, Bera embraced more traditionally partisan territory, yoking Jones to the Republican Party’s controversial presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Jones initially said he would support the party’s nominee, but disavowed Trump in the late stages of the race, predicting the move could cost him the election.
The contest, which ordinarily would have favored Bera given the historically higher turnout of Democrats in presidential years, tested the mettle of both men.
In May, federal prosecutors shocked the race by charging Bera’s elderly father with two felony counts of election fraud involving the finances of his son’s campaign committee. Babulal Bera, 84, a retired chemical engineer, was sentenced three months later to one year in federal prison and fined $100,000. Though federal officials stressed that their nearly 18-month probe turned up no evidence that Ami Bera knew of his father’s illegal activity, closing the books on its investigation in September, Jones and the Republican Party continued to challenge the congressman over his stated lack of knowledge.
“Usually the person who commits the crime receives the benefit of the crime,” Jones said in their only debate. “Here, the person who committed the crime is going to prison, and the only person to receive a benefit was Congressman Bera by getting elected to two terms.”
Jones had his own issues in the course of the campaign. A multimillion-dollar retaliation ruling against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department bled into the congressional contest this summer when court filings revealed that a deputy deposed in connection with the case had accused Jones of unwanted sexual advances toward her between 2003 and 2005.
Tosca Olives, 26 at the time, claimed about 30 inappropriate encounters, including several mutual kisses. In his sworn statement with the court, Jones denied any romantic or sexual interest in Olives and said he “never had any physical contact with her of an intimate nature,” except once, when she kissed him.
Bera featured the allegations in searing TV ads. In the debate, he called the deputy’s charges about Jones “pretty disturbing.”
“No woman should ever have to face this type of harassment,” Bera said.
Jones featured ads of his own in which a group of his co-workers implored voters not to believe Bera’s charges. Jones’ campaign later sent a letter said to have been written by the candidate’s wife, Christy, characterizing her husband as a “real gentleman,” loving spouse and doting father of four. She called Bera’s ads “false and disgusting.”
With questions of character dominating the TV airwaves, the candidates’ differing approaches were less perceptible.
Bera repeatedly pointed to his office’s record of delivering services to constituents, particularly veterans, while Jones generally stressed the need to simplify the tax code and eliminate burdensome regulations on businesses. Bera never did cede to his liberal defectors on trade, even after Jones came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal backed by President Barack Obama.
Bera said he strongly supports an immigration overhaul providing a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, while Jones favors giving immigrants legal status in the U.S. At their only debate, they sharply diverged on climate change, with Bera calling the threat real and saying it must be swiftly addressed by government. Jones said he was skeptical of whether humans contribute to climate change, calling it a “political” question.
Throughout the campaign, Jones defended his practice of issuing more than 8,000 concealed-carry gun permits to county residents since taking office in 2011. The candidates themselves briefly sparred over guns, locking horns following the June massacre at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
Bera’s campaign called on Jones, a staunch defender of gun rights for law-abiding residents, to reverse his earlier opposition to federal legislation banning those on terror-watch and no-fly lists from purchasing guns, calling the position “radical” and “dangerous.” Jones supported a Republican-led amendment to allow officials to initiate a court hearing that could deny guns to suspected terrorists if certain conditions were met within a three-day timeline.