Dan Morain: Lungren, Bera vie for every last vote

dmorain@sacbee.comNovember 3, 2012 

As he has done in campaigns since Eisenhower beat Stevenson the first time, Rep. Dan Lungren is walking with a slight limp.

"Lot of dogs. They're relatively friendly," the Republican said as he knocked on the first door on Briggs Ranch Drive in Folsom.

Lungren was 6 when he walked the first time for a congressional candidate in Long Beach, where he grew up. He ran for that same seat in 1976 when he was 29, and lost, he said, by 2,866 votes.

"I never think about that," he said, clearly thinking about 1976 as he walks in 2012 across the district that includes Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom.

Lungren is the former California attorney general who lost his run for governor in 1998 and came back in 2004 by winning a Republican-leaning congressional seat in suburban Sacramento.

Now, he faces Ami Bera, a well-funded physician in a rematch of his 2010 race. No serious prognosticator predicts Democrats will take back the House on Tuesday. But they all say Lungren is among the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.

This is the year of the super PAC, and the Lungren-Bera race is one of the nation's most costly and ad-saturated congressional races. Conservative political action committees attract most attention.

But PACs using money from labor, environmentalists, physicians and others have spent $4.6 million to dislodge Lungren, more than has been spent to defeat any other congressional incumbent except for a one-term Ohio Republican, the Center for Responsive Politics reports.

This also is the year when "transvaginal ultrasound" entered the lexicon, when a Republican Senate candidate theorized about "legitimate rape," and another Republican Senate candidate opined that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

This, too, is the year of Sandra Fluke.

Bera gathered his campaign workers, many of them young women, last week in his cluttered Elk Grove headquarters to meet the 31-year-old Georgetown law school graduate who has been stumping for Democrats while awaiting her bar exam results.

Bera ought to thank Rep. Darrell Issa and the four other aging Republican congressmen, who, through chauvinism and arrogance, gave Fluke far more than 15 minutes of fame by barring her from testifying about whether health plans should cover contraceptives.

"There is such an extreme, incredible difference between Dr. Bera and his stand for women's health, and Rep. Lungren's absolutely dismal record," Fluke said, firing up the workers. "Shameful," DeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association, interjected, there to lend labor support for Bera.

"Yes, it is shameful," Fluke said, proceeding to list Lungren's votes, including ones to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, whose political arm is helping Bera.

"At this late date, I'm going to talk about the economy," Lungren said, deflecting my question about Fluke as he walked down Briggs Ranch Drive.

Lungren doesn't hide his conservatism. But aware that his opposition to abortion wins him no votes, he focuses on bread and butter. Bera pivots to social and health issues, as he seeks to tie Lungren to extremists in the GOP.

"I don't want politicians in my exam room," Bera said, and neither do his patients.

On the evening before Fluke stopped by Bera's headquarters, Lungren mingled with 20 members of the Slavic American Chamber of Commerce, who had gathered at the Rancho Cordova showroom of Quality Construction by VM, Vadim Zyubanov, proprietor.

"I live in a country that gives me a lot of opportunity," said Zyubanov, who moved here 15 years ago from Ukraine, became a citizen this year and will vote for the first time Tuesday, Republican.

Lungren opened by apologizing for his lack of coat and tie, explaining he had come from walking door to door. He talked of the need to lower taxes and loosen regulations, and said nothing about social issues.

"I haven't heard you say that you need government to do more for you," Lungren told the gathering.

Slavic American Chamber president Sergey Terebkov made a point of telling me that Bera is a good man. But he listed reasons for leaning toward Lungren: He has been accessible. He has come to Slavic churches. He has helped with immigration issues. Importantly, Lungren focuses on economic issues.

"Funny you mention it. I don't even know what his position on abortion is," Terebkov said.

Judy Meade does know his stand, and doesn't like it. Meade, a kindergarten teacher, was eating an avocado, cream cheese and sprouts sandwich with her teaching partner, Kristin Mullard, at a deli in an Elk Grove strip mall when Bera bounded up to shake hands.

"Oh my God, Ami Bera," she said, telling him she posted "Educators for Ami Bera" on her Facebook page the other day.

"All these ads have boosted my profile," Bera said with a grin, though he's not sure that's a good thing.

Meade's top issue is education funding. She wants enough to lower the class size down to 20, as it was when she started teaching 14 years ago. She's also appalled that politicians try to interfere in women's health issues.

"It's not like I'm pro-abortion," she said. "But I don't think anyone should tell a woman, or a man, what they can and can't do. That rape thing fries me. Are you kidding me?"

There are ways to guess who will win a tossup race. History and registration inform the guess. Bera ran against Lungren in 2010 and lost by 18,000 votes, not particularly close.

District lines drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission gave Democrats a slim registration edge. Barack Obama won in the area in 2008, and Jerry Brown carried it in 2010. Giving Democrats greater cause for optimism, 22,743 additional voters have registered in Congressional District 7 since the commission drew the lines. Forty-one percent of them are Democrats, and a mere 29 percent are Republicans, according to Political Data Inc., which compiled the numbers.

Bera has raised $3.1 million to Lungren's $2.3 million, plus whatever House Speaker John Boehner generated last week when he slipped into Folsom for a fundraiser. Lungren issued no public notice of the visit, an indication of the dim view voters have of Congress.

Outside groups have spent $8.2 million for and against them. The combined $13.6 million makes the Lungren-Bera race the third most costly congressional race behind ones in Pennsylvania and Ohio, federal election records show.

For all that is spent on ads and mailers, election victories can turn on how many hands candidates shake, and how they sell themselves and their issues to voters. After losing in 1976, Lungren told himself he'd never get outworked again.

Like Bera, Lungren didn't stop running after that loss. He won the seat on his second try in 1978, when he was 31, the same age as Fluke, the young woman who has become a powerful symbol of Republicans' stumbles. Lungren has to hope that Republican missteps don't trip him up, and that he'll be walking door-to-door again two years from now.

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