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Democratic Congressman Ami Bera is in an unfamiliar position – he’s a heavy favorite

After barely edging out his opponents in three straight congressional races, Sacramento-area Rep. Ami Bera is in the unfamiliar position of being the odds-on favorite this November.

The Elk Grove Democrat enjoys a massive financial advantage over his Republican challenger, Andrew Grant, as the general election kicks off.

“The long term demographics of the district and the political environment in 2018 make [Bera] a heavy favorite to win,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.

Wasserman noted that Bera won a majority of the primary vote in June, an improvement over his showing in the last midterm contest in 2014, when he was held to 47 percent of the primary vote while GOP candidates combined for 51 percent.

While the race for Bera’s 7th District seat has traditionally been one of the most competitive in the country, political handicappers at the Cook Political Report and University of Virginia Center for Politics rate the 7th district race as “likely” to remain in Democratic hands this year.

A third national forecaster, Inside Elections, recently moved the seat to “solid” Democrat, indicating they don’t believe it will be competitive. Pointing to Democrats heightened enthusiasm this election, fanned by the anti-Trump “resistance,” Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections said via e-mail that “Grant might be the right challenger for Republicans, running in the wrong year.”

Bera’s campaign manager, Will Van Nuys, attributed the congressman’s political standing to his work in the district, which runs along the eastern half of Sacramento County, encompassing Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove.

By his office’s count, the congressman has assisted more than 10,000 constituents in dealing with federal agencies like the IRS and Social Security Administration.

“Dr. Bera has continued to deliver on his promise to put the people of California’s 7th District and Sacramento County first,” Van Nuys said in a statement, earning him “the support of both Democrats and Republicans across the district.”

Local Republicans, however, insist that the narrow divide between Democrats and Republicans in district means it will inevitably be competitive and say Grant, a former Marine, has a shot at ousting Bera despite his lack of cash. As of June 30, Bera had $1.7 million in his campaign account, compared to just $72,000 for Grant.

Sacramento County Republican Party Chairwoman Betsy Mahan predicted that gap would close now that Republicans are uniting behind Grant. He bested another Republican, Fair Oaks Dr. Yona Barash, in the “top two” primary to advance to the general election against Bera.

I think you’ll see very different numbers coming out going forward,” said Mahan, who added that the contest remained one of local Republicans’ “top priorities.”

“We have a much more aggressive grassroots operation this year,” she added.

Grant, himself, told The Bee he’ll have the resources necessary to take on Bera this fall in the district.

“I’m not going to make as much money as Ami Bera in my fundraising,” Grant acknowledged. “But I can, I think, make enough money to be competitive, combined with a very, very strong message.”

That message, Grant says, is focused on the improving the economy, controlling housing costs and rebuilding local infrastructure — though not by raising the state’s gas tax, as the Democratic-controlled legislature voted to do last year.

Grant believes the statewide initiative to repeal California’s recent gas tax increase will help his cause.

“The sentiment around this thing is very strong to repeal it in District 7,” he said. Asked where the state should get money to improve its infrastructure, if not gas tax revenue, Grant pointed to the federal government. “I am very frustrated with the lack of prioritization for infrastructure at the federal level,” he said.

His target: the growing bloc of independent, or “no party preference,” voters living in the district. “A lot of them are sort of classic Republicans,” Grant said.

When Bera was first elected in 2012, Democrat and Republican voter registration figures were evenly divided – 39 to 38 percent – with independents at 19 percent. But in the last six years, Republican registration has dropped 6 percent while the number of “no party preference” voters has steadily climbed. Democratic registration has remained at roughly 39 percent.

A February poll conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that while Bera had a positive rating, overall, independent voters were almost evenly split over whether the congressman deserved reelection. A June poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the Grant campaign, meanwhile, found that Bera’s lead over his Republican challenger narrowed significantly when voters learned more about Grant.

The problem for Republicans is that Grant is a virtual unknown to voters. Introducing him requires advertising, and advertising is expensive in the Sacramento media market.

Party donors and political action committees, however, are not ponying up to Grant’s campaign the way they have for past Bera challengers. Wasserman says GOP donors may feel that, after so many close calls, the seat is a lost cause, particularly in a year when Democrats are fired up and outraising Republicans, nationally.

“A lot of Republicans in Sacramento have opened their wallets to previous candidates who have lost,” he said. Given that the political dynamics in those years favored the GOP, Wasserman said the current mindset is,“If Republicans couldn’t win in past years, how is Grant going to win this time?”

The best hope for Grant’s campaign, then, may be attracting support from Republican-aligned outside groups. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the national party’s House campaign arm, recruited Grant. But they and other well-funded groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC supporting House Republicans, are consumed with shoring up several vulnerable Republican members of Congress in California. Unless Grant can pull in more campaign cash, on his own, they are unlikely to put their own money into the race.

Grant says that while he’d welcome the support, he’s not betting his campaign on it. His message to GOP leaders, he said, has been “I’m going to run the hardest campaign I can, great if you consider this race to support, great if you can assist me in name recognition.” However, “I don’t expect the cavalry to show up.”

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