Republican Igor Birman paused in front of a Mediterranean-style house, surveying the Citrus Heights neighborhood as he prepared his in-person pitch Sunday afternoon.
On leave as a top aide to Rep. Tom McClintock, Birman was working off a list of likely GOP voters. This particular home had a sign out front: “Igor Birman for Congress: The REAL Conservative.”
A woman answered the door, and soon they were conversing in their native Russian. She talked about her large family, and the aspiring politician mentioned his grandmother. He’s been having lots of similar conversations with Democrats and independents since airing his phone number in a Russian-language radio ad.
At home after home, Birman talked about his family’s journey from the Soviet Union, pivoting to his main talking point: That he fears the direction his adopted country is taking, and that he is best positioned to help alter the course. Gary Colton plainly asked Birman how he stacks up to fellow Republican Doug Ose.
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“The other guy is a liberal,” Birman replied, smiling. He rattled off a long list of his own conservative supporters. “You got to look at his record.”
The GOP rivals running to unseat freshman Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, in the suburban swing district pressed for every vote this weekend in what the campaigns expect to be a low-turnout primary election.
Just 46,000 returned ballots had been processed through Friday, including roughly 19,300 from Democrats, 18,400 from Republicans and 6,200 from voters that decline to state a party. The 7th district, which switched party hands two years ago, is a top target of Republicans given its razor-close partisan divide.
Despite holding a commanding fundraising advantage and residual familiarity with voters after serving three terms in Congress, Ose said he was taking nothing for granted. He recently put another $100,000 of his own money into the race.
“I am confident, but not comfortable,” Ose said. “This isn’t about money. “It’s about getting people to vote. If they don’t vote, it’s kind of a wasted effort.”
Ose, who stepped down from Congress because of self-imposed term limits, suffered the only loss of his political career in a primary against McClintock in 2008. He refused to compare the two races, saying the dynamics are too different. He typically avoids mentioning the other Republican challengers, including autism activist Elizabeth Emken, but in recent weeks has stepped up his public critiques of Birman.
At his campaign headquarters in Fair Oaks on Saturday, Ose rallied about three dozen volunteers and campaign workers as they prepared to call and knock on doors in Citrus Heights, Folsom, Arden Arcade and Gold River.
Ose said his message to prospective voters is the same as it’s always been: He’s the candidate best positioned to create jobs, jump-start the economy and repeal and replace the federal health care law “with something that works.”
The Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC has spent the last week assailing the former congressman with $200,000 worth of negative mail and TV ads. Ose’s campaign has countered the PAC with mailers and a radio ad. On Saturday, he singled out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat deeply unpopular with GOP voters.
“The reason Pelosi is here, spending 200-large, is she knows that Ami Bera is in trouble if I’m the nominee,” Ose said to cheers. “When you walk out this door, the question I want resonating in your brain is, ‘Do you want Nancy Pelosi to pick the nominee for the Republicans, or do you want the voters of this district!’”
He stressed the need to help inspire voters by telling the group to communicate a positive message. Campaign aides instituted a “walk-competition” for door-to-door canvassers that assigned a certain number of points for various feats, including persuading voters to plop down a lawn sign.
Bera, who is widely expected to finish first in the primary, also held various get-out-the-vote efforts over the weekend.
In Rancho Cordova on Saturday, Emken sat at a table while a small group of campaign aides and volunteers took a break from contacting voters. She predicted that a low turnout would favor her campaign, which deliberately avoided running TV and other ads and instead spent months on the ground targeting voters.
“We’ve got our base of voters,” she said. “We’ve just got to make sure they vote.”
Emken has sought to seize on the dysfunction in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that she says dovetails with her own experiences. Her father-in-law died from a medical error at a veterans’ hospital and her mother-in-law has been waiting three years for survivor benefits to be approved, she said.
This weekend, the campaign issued an auto-dialed call into the district that led with her personal story and asked voters to contact the candidate.
“It gives people an opportunity to talk to me,” she said.
Emken said she’s counting on drawing support from Republicans and independents who believe Ose is too moderate and Birman is too classically libertarian. Emken said she wasn’t surprised groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent on behalf of Ose and tea-party aligned FreedomWorks PAC came out for Birman.
“Both of these candidates embody establishment groups in D.C.” she said, acknowledging that the outside spending has challenged her campaign.
“We have to overcome that, and, I am cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I think it’s legitimately anybody’s race. I really do.”