By Jeremy P. Jacobs - 06/17/09 06:08 PM EDT
But Democrats hope they don’t have too much of a good thing and can avoid a contentious primary.
Physician Ami Bera, who has shaped healthcare policy, filed for the race in April. Former Elk Grove Mayor and current City Councilman Gary Davis, who also works for an education nonprofit, announced in May that he would run. And last week, utility company executive Bill Slaton announced he is also getting in the race.
Until a front-runner emerges, Democrats are focusing on Lungren, whose vulnerability, they argue, lies in numbers.
Lungren earned the lowest percentage of the vote of any California Republican last year, and President Obama carried the 3rd district. Plus, the Republican registration advantage in the district has narrowed dramatically. And the Hispanic population, an increasingly loyal Democratic voting bloc, has grown by nearly two-thirds in the past decade.
Asked if Lungren is the most at-risk Republican in the Golden State, Allan Hoffenblum, the publisher of the California Target Book, said flatly, “Yes.
“When the district lines were drawn in 2002, the registration was 45 percent Republican, 34 percent Democratic and 13 percent declined to state,” Hoffenblum said. “This year it is 40 percent GOP, 38 percent Dem and 18 percent [declined to state]. This is a Sacramento suburban area that is trending Democratic.”
Lungren knows he is in the Democrats’ sights and is well-aware of the four robo-calls and the radio ad the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have run in his district in the past months.
He is ramping up his efforts to prepare for next year and argues he ran into the “perfect storm” last cycle. GOP presidential nominee John McCain “collapsed” in California and all but pulled out of the state entirely, Lungren noted.
Liberal interest groups also flooded the area with money to focus on down-ballot races.
But Democrats argue Lungren avoided party connections in his 2008 campaign.
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said Lungren avoided discussing his Republican credentials last year because he saw his registration advantage has shrunk to 8,000 voters, or 2 percent. Voters, Burton noted, saw through that tactic.
“The last election he sort of downplayed his Republicanism,” Burton said. “It’s pretty tough to keep doing that. Dan is a conservative Republican. He always has been.”
“Congressman Lungren is increasingly out of touch,” said DCCC spokesman Andy Stone.
But Republicans point out that Lungren defeated Democratic candidate Bill Durston by six points and significantly outperformed McCain, who lost the district by one point.
Lungren acknowledged that his district outreach was insufficient in the last cycle, something he is trying to remedy now.
“I don’t think I did as good a job as I could have last time making sure people were aware of all the work I had done in the district,” he said. Now, he added, he is already holding townhalls and increasing outreach.
He also points out that his district is one of the most populous in California. Lungren represents well above the average number of constituents for a California House member, as do two other targeted Republicans, Reps. Mary Bono Mack and Ken Calvert.
Democrats, Lungren said, are likely targeting those districts now because redistricting may break them up after the 2010 census. Having members in more seats would help the Democrats further marginalize the GOP when the new districts are drawn.
Republicans believe the district is still conservative and Lungren’s credentials appeal to it. President George W. Bush carried the district with 58 percent in 2004 and local Republicans are gearing up a voter registration drive to help supplement that advantage.
“We know Democrats are targeting Lungren and we’re responding with an aggressive voter registration program,” said Susan Blake, the chairwoman of the Sacramento County Republicans.
“The bad news for Lungren was Durston dropping out,” he said. “Durston was a very partisan, liberal Democrat” and not the best fit for the district.
In their three candidates, Democrats say they have legitimate contenders but hope that they can avoid a messy primary.
Sources in the district are particularly high on Davis, the Elk Grove councilman. Davis represents the district’s biggest city, and is from Rancho Cordova, its second largest. He is well-connected, some say, and will be able to raise significant funds.
Davis was also the most outspoken in his criticism of Lungren.
“It fundamentally comes down to whether Dan Lungren is serving the needs of our local community and working aggressively to better our local economy,” he said. “And he’s not doing it.”
Davis’s connections will be tested in the primary by Bera, who said he is on pace to raise $250,000 by June 30, his first filing deadline as a candidate, and is planning to raise at least $2.5 million for the race. A first-generation American, Bera is building a national fundraising operation to appeal to Southeast Asian and Indian populations.
Bera has an extensive background in healthcare policy, both in the public and private sector, which will be one of his top campaign issues. “I’ve been consistently disappointed almost to a T,” he said when asked about healthcare. “We have avoided having the difficult conversation.”
Slaton, an executive at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, brings a business background and expertise on energy issues to the race.
Local Democrats said it is too early to tell who the strongest contender will be, but they are excited about the fundraising abilities of each.
“All of these candidates have the ability to raise substantial sums of money, certainly enough to beat Dan Lungren,” said Anna Molander, the chairwoman of the Sacramento County Democrats. “He’s going to need a lot of help from the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] and I don’t think he’s going to get it.”