Closely watched, expensive Bera-Ose race a dead heat

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ami Bera goes to cast his ballot while voting in Elk Grove.
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ami Bera goes to cast his ballot while voting in Elk Grove. The Associated Press

Two years ago, Rep. Ami Bera didn’t learn he had won his suburban Sacramento swing seat until nine days after the election.

This year, after facing a challenge from former GOP Rep. Doug Ose, Bera will have to wait some more before learning whether he’ll continue to represent the 7th Congressional District.

Ose held an advantage Tuesday night in one of the most closely watched and expensive House races in the nation, leading 51 percent to 49 percent with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

Ose addressed supporters at a restaurant in Rancho Cordova late Tuesday but stopped short of claiming victory.

“I want to be clear about two things,” he said. “The first is, we’re going to take this country in a different direction and solve our problems instead of just talk about them. And the party’s on at Rudy’s Hideaway.”

In an indication of just how close he expected the race to be, Bera’s campaign has already launched a drive to raise money for a possible recount.

“The people of our community knocked on more doors, talked to more people and made more phone calls than any other race across this nation,” Bera told supporters gathered at an election night party in Carmichael. “We’re going to bring this thing home.”

The increasingly acrimonious contest mostly played out in paid television ads as the candidates and their supporters lobbed pointed attacks. The candidates and their allies poured $20.6 million into the race, including $13.5 million from outside interests.

Bera raised $3.7 million through mid-October and benefited from $6.5 million more in spending from outside groups as he sought to avoid becoming the first Democratic congressman in California to lose their re-election bid to a Republican in 20 years. In 1994, three California Democrats fell to House challengers, helping give rise to Speaker Newt Gingrich and the proposed Contract with America.

Bera, a 49-year-old medical doctor, claimed his seat two years ago in a rematch with Republican Dan Lungren. A former county medical director and university admissions official, Bera made his leadership in the bipartisan group No Labels the centerpiece of his campaign. In TV, radio and mail ads, he said he built a record of working with Republicans. Bera pointed to votes in which he bucked leaders from his own party, blocking funding for high-speed rail and delaying taxes under the federal health care law.

Ose, a 59-year-old former congressman, cast the No Labels group as ineffective and painted Bera as contributing to the dysfunction in Washington. In the waning days of the campaign, he released a TV ad of his own touting his political independence, including support for abortion rights, yet also his willingness to “stand up to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.” Ose stressed his business acumen and personal connection to the district as well as a well-publicized pledge to repeal and replace the health care law.

Ose supplied his campaign with more than $3 million of his own money since August and was assisted by $7 million more from outside groups.

A product of the area who attended Rio Americano High School, Ose served on five chamber of commerce chapters and was instrumental in the drive to incorporate Citrus Heights. He earned millions as a developer before taking his seat in Congress in 1999.

While he voted repeatedly to slash spending and make permanent the Bush tax cuts, his record on abortion, guns and immigration put him on the moderate end of his caucus.

Ose left Washington in 2005, honoring a pledge to step down after three terms. He ultimately decided against a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

Three years later, he ran in a neighboring district and spent more than $4 million of his own money in a rancorous race against conservative Republican Tom McClintock, losing in the primary. Ose has said he spends his time managing his investments and looking after a public-private partnership with the county to run Gibson Ranch in Elverta.

Meanwhile, Ose’s former congressional seat had gone to Lungren. He held off Bera in 2010, but lost a rematch by fewer than 10,000 votes in the redrawn 7th District. Bera this year worked to spread the word that he delivered on promises he made in 2012, including honoring pledges to repay money or his federal retirement and support for legislation to withhold salaries when Congress doesn’t pass a budget.

Bera, who in the previous cycle ripped Lungren for taking taxpayer-funded retirement, similarly ramped up pressure on Ose, saying his rival was motivated to return to Washington to “protect Wall Street banks.” Bera’s other criticisms focused on Ose’s wealth, his promise to repeal the federal health care law and his skepticism about global climate change.

The lack of a compelling race at the top of the ticket worried Democrats, many of whom feared Bera’s status as a freshman member in the minority of a deeply unproductive Congress would create a insurmountable headwind for the incumbent. Top congressional handicappers over the final weeks switched their characterizations of the race from slightly favoring Bera to a pure tossup or even favoring Ose.

In the last week, Bera attended a rally with former President Bill Clinton at the University of California, Davis, and unveiled automated telephone calls from first lady Michelle Obama. She told voters that “Barack and I are counting on you to support Ami Bera and the Democratic ticket.”

“We can’t risk having more out of touch folks coming to Congress, just because a handful of Democratic voters stayed home,” Michelle Obama said in the call.

Ose rallied with several Republican House and legislative candidates and continued to highlight a list of more than 70 local elected officials, community leaders and organizations supporting his campaign.

Discussing the dynamics in the run-up to Tuesday, Ose said the polling he saw suggested the direction of the contest could turn “depending on which way the wind blows.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago

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