More than two weeks after polls closed, Rep. Ami Bera won a second term to represent a seat covering suburban Sacramento County, denying Republican challenger Doug Ose a return to Washington and ending the California GOP’s chances of unseating its first Democratic House incumbent since 1994.
Bera, an Elk Grove physician, trailed Ose by more than 3,000 votes at the close of election night and steadily closed the gap before surging to a 700-vote advantage last week, as county election officials tallied tens of thousands of remaining ballots. He led Wednesday by 1,432 votes with nearly all ballots counted.
Bera’s campaign attributed the late success to an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation that was the largest in the nation when he ousted GOP then-Rep. Dan Lungren in 2012. This cycle, the freshman lawmaker’s campaign knocked on 270,000 doors and made 950,000 phone calls.
“It’s been my honor serving this community as a doctor for the last 19 years, and I am grateful I will have the opportunity to continue serving as the representative for California’s 7th Congressional District in Congress,” said a statement from Bera, who was in Washington D.C. for the remaining weeks of the congressional session.
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California Democrats came off election night on the brink of faltering in close congressional races, but rebounded as overtime ballot-counting favored their party. Reps. Scott Peters of San Diego, Julia Brownley of Thousand Oaks and Jim Costa of Fresno pulled away from their rivals. Costa narrowly defeated Republican Johnny Tacherra on Wednesday.
Democratic Reps. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, Jerry McNerney of Stockton, John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara also weathered the national Republican wave that swept over many of their colleagues. The only California House district to change partisan hands went to Redlands Democrat Pete Aguilar, who claimed the seat left vacant by retiring Republican Rep. Gary Miller.
The Sacramento race for a district that stretches across Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom was the nation’s most expensive. The candidates and their supporters dropped at least $19.6 million in the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Final campaign reports are not yet available. But for the primary and general, Bera, a prolific fundraiser, collected $3.7 million in contributions through Oct. 15, and outside groups independently spent $6.5 million on his behalf. Ose raised $3.2 million during that time period and benefited from nearly $7 million more in spending from outside groups.
Sparring between the campaigns, most visible in the form of television and radio ads, bled into the overtime vote-counting process, where each campaign accused the other of trying to manipulate the process.
Bera faced a stiff headwind in the race. He was a freshman lawmaker in the minority party of a Congress the public considers unproductive and hyper-partisan. The lack of competition in California’s statewide races depressed interest and limited the Democratic voter turnout from which Bera benefited in 2012 presidential election.
After claiming the seat two years ago in a rematch with Lungren, Bera spent much of the campaign highlighting his leadership in the bipartisan group No Labels.
Bera said he built a strong record of working with Republicans, distancing himself from his party leaders with votes to block funding for high-speed rail and delay certain taxes under the federal Affordable Care Act. He joined 38 Democrats to support a GOP bill that would have allowed health insurers to continue offering plans being canceled under Obamacare.
Other themes that carried over from his previous race included his promises to repay his federal retirement and support for legislation to withhold salaries when Congress doesn’t pass a budget. At the same time, Bera attacked Ose’s pledge to repeal the federal health care law and his skepticism about global climate change. He emphasized Ose’s wealth and characterized him as too friendly with bankers and financial institutions.
Ose, a former three-term congressman, congratulated Bera and thanked his supporters, but took issue with campaign attacks by the Democrat that focused on his personal finances.
“I want to make one thing clear: real success in life is not something to be demonized or looked down upon. No amount of TV or radio will ever change that,” he said in a statement. “I regret that one of the themes in this election appears to have been that successful people by the very nature of their success are unworthy of elective office. In fact, people who are successful in the private sector are exactly the people we want to step forward and run for public office.”
After relinquishing his congressional seat due to self-imposed term limits in 2005, Ose spent the campaign emphasizing his business acumen and close ties to the district. He contributed $3.5 million of his own money – more than $1.5 million of it in the final two weeks – while repeatedly blasting Bera for supporting the federal health care law.
The power of his critiques, which played well for other Republican candidates nationally, may have been lessened by the law’s relative success and popularity in California.
California exit polling showed 54 percent believed the 2010 health care law was about right or didn’t go far enough, and 38 percent said it went too far, according to a memo from the Field Poll. Of voters nationwide, 49 percent felt the overhaul went too far and 46 percent said it was about right or didn’t go far enough.
Following two weeks of counting, Bera and Costa’s victories prolong the California GOP’s 20-year drought against Democratic incumbents into the 2016 presidential election.
Jon Fleischman, the conservative writer and former state GOP executive, blamed national Republicans for the losses, calling their strategy here an “epic failure.”
Fleischman pointed to nine races that he believes could have been won had the GOP more evenly divided the money it spent on Ose and Carl DeMaio of San Diego, who according to federal reports received nearly $6 million as of Wednesday.
“It’s hard to get federal dollars focused in California for anything, but when you invest … millions of dollars and win nothing?” he asked.
Fleischman said the results also are frustrating to the state Republican Party, which successfully worked to prevent Democrats from holding two-thirds of state legislative seats in each house.
“It’s nice to applaud some extremely modest pickups,” he said of the GOP’s statehouse wins, but “this was a real opportunity to even out the House delegation.”
California Democrats’ firewall has proven resilient over the years. Since President Barack Obama took the White House, they have picked up three House seats and swept every partisan statewide post.
Republicans in Washington recognized the headwinds and likely thought twice about how much they wanted to invest here, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“For national Republicans, its a zero-sum game,” Schnur said. “Do we put money into congressional races in Sacramento, Ventura or San Diego, or others in California, or do we put it into states where we know the top of the ticket is at less of a disadvantage? That’s not to excuse the decisions national Republicans made, but you could see how they came to those conclusions.”
Schnur said the geographic distance between the party nerve center in Washington and the Golden State is not nearly as great as the political and cultural divide, noting that the GOP nationally remains a party that does best between the coasts. He said unseating an incumbent, or two, would have brought with it a considerable amount of bragging rights, yet he said state party officials were wise to narrow their focus to erasing Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature.
“The state party took its first small but important steps back toward political relevance,” he said. “An additional congressional seat on top of the legislative races might have represented an additional step forward, but not much more than that.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from print and online versions to correct the national results of an exit poll about the federal health care law. Updated at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 20, 2014.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago