For Doug Ose, the political winds seemed to be at his back.
He was a top-flight contender to oust Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, a freshman lawmaker in the minority of a deeply unpopular Congress.
President Barack Obama’s popularity was slipping even in blue California, and statewide voter turnout was expected to be anemic even by the lower standards of midterm elections. Ose previously served three terms in the House, and had a healthy donor network and millions of his own dollars to fuel the campaign.
Ose, who in a Thursday interview did not rule out another run for the office, said he believes people here think the country is on the wrong track and in need of a change. That was the central theme of his campaign, and he applied the argument to health care, jobs and the economy, education, immigration and the nation’s declining stature.
And yet roughly 1,400 more voters in the 7th Congressional District decided to support Bera.
Voters “said they want him. OK, I am good with that. I respect it,” Ose said. “You don’t have to reconcile it; you just got to count the votes.”
Bera’s victory in the expensive and closely watched contest now shifts the focus to 2016, a presidential election year in which Democrats expect to see considerably higher turnout across California.
Turnout was down significantly across the district this time. But Bera was saved by increasing his vote share in many of the communities from 2012, based on an update released by county elections officials on Wednesday. Democrats also hung on in tight congressional races in Stockton, San Diego, Riverside, Ventura and Fresno.
Rob Stutzman, who guided then-Rep. Dan Lungren’s campaigns against Bera, said Democrats deserve credit for gathering so many absentee votes in the days immediately before the Nov. 4 election. He said Sacramento County Republicans need to build a better permanent operation to help turn out voters.
“This is still very winnable for a Republican, even in a presidential year, and we shouldn’t stop trying to win it,” Stutzman said.
GOP strategist Dave Gilliard isn’t as sure.
“Unless Bera makes some serious missteps here – and votes like he represents a safe district, which he doesn’t – it will be tough” in 2016, he said, suggesting a viable GOP contender may hold off until 2018, when turnout will be lower.
Experts and political observers say the congressman’s prospects of drawing a strong challenger – and ultimately retaining the suburban swing seat – will largely hinge on the choices he makes in Washington. Republicans weighing a possible bid are almost assuredly going to wait to see what Ose decides.
Possible candidates include Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and former Sheriff John McGinness, who hosts a talk radio show on KFBK. Others include county supervisors Susan Peters and Roberta MacGlashan.
Among other issues, they’ll be watching how Bera reacts to Obama’s move to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and how Bera comes down on legislation to authorize the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
“It’s too early to make a determination one way or another,” said Tab Berg, a Republican political consultant. “There are a dozen factors that need to be determined before anyone realistically looks at that seat, including what Bera does in the first few months.”
Despite some interest from area politicos, Gilliard dismissed rumbles that retired Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully would dip her toe into partisan politics. Scully is “looking forward to having some free time,” he said. “I don’t see her showing any interest in this.”
Bera suggested he doesn’t expect to get a pass in the future. To pull ahead this fall, Bera credited his large ground operation, which he said Thursday relied on the assistance of more than 1,000 volunteers making phone calls and talking to their neighbors.
“We understood that if we went into election day tied we would win,” he said.
Bera also defended making an issue of Ose’s personal wealth, which the former congressman and real estate developer said demonized his successes. Bera said the purpose was to highlight what he sees as a conflict: Ose’s votes to deregulate Wall Street while owning millions of dollars in stock.
“This was never about not being successful,” Bera said. “It’s about who is really fighting for the middle class and the little guy.”
Ose compared caricatures of him as a wealthy, self-interested businessman to the party’s early and sustained campaign against Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Romney is likable as an executive, and also as a person, “and yet that didn’t come across,” Ose said.
He also bemoaned the flood of outside money that went into TV ads from groups operating independently of the two campaigns.
“It’s troubling to me to see voters influenced by that kind of misrepresentation funded by parties from outside the district who remain nameless and faceless,” he said. The message was: “successful business people must be corrupt; and that resonated with some people and they just went after it.
“I am saddened when that becomes the ledger sheet by which people make their decision.”
Emotions from the campaign, he said, were still raw. Ose said he has yet to call Bera to formally congratulate him.
“Let’s let some time pass; let this thing scab over and heal up.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago