Dems see surprising numbers in their bid to win Lungren’s seat

Dr. Ami Bera was the surprise fundraiser of the second quarter, pulling in nearly $300,000 and changing the landscape of the Democratic primary to face Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

Bera has emerged as a surprise front-runner in the Sacramento-area primary, but he has plenty of company in a race with plenty of money.

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Elk Grove City Councilman Gary Davis (D) began the race as something of an early favorite, given his high name recognition. But he wound up a distant third in fundraising, trailing both Bera and Sacramento Municipal Utility District Director Bill Slaton.

While Bera raised $288,000, Slaton raised a very respectable $114,000 in just a few weeks, and he matched it with a $114,000 personal loan for a total of $228,000. That came in just shy of Lungren’s $233,000 raised, nearly giving the incumbent the rare distinction of facing two candidates who are putting together more money than he is.

For an incumbent who hasn’t seen that kind of money used against him in years, it’s a change of pace. But Lungren, a former gubernatorial candidate, insists he’s seen it before, and he cites his 2004 open-seat primary with self-funder Mary Ose.

“I am not underestimating the Democrats, but they may be underestimating me,” Lungren said, adding: “I’ve had this before.”

Bera had been telling Democrats in the area and the media that he was prepared to announce a substantial sum, but last week’s total caught many by surprise.

Lungren was already a top target for Democrats, having been held below 50 percent in 2008, but Bera’s and other fundraising reports from last week have reinforced that fact.

Bera was one of only a handful of challengers in the country to outraise an incumbent, and his total was also the fourth-highest in the country among challengers, according to The Hill’s review of campaign finance reports.

West Coast Democratic consultant Jim Ross said Bera leapfrogged the other two candidates in the race with his second-quarter haul.

“Dan Lungren’s a well-known political figure in the state, so he’s going to be a tough guy to beat,” Ross said. “But I think Dr. Bera is the most likely Democratic challenger.”

Bera is a first-generation Indian-American who works as a physician and has served as dean of admissions at the University of California-Davis, where he honed his fundraising skills.

Though his first-quarter totals were impressive, it’s clear much of the money came from the Indian-American community and the medical community. Ethnic groups and doctors are generally strong sources of campaign cash, but candidates have to venture outside of them as the cycle progresses.

Now that he has established legitimacy, Bera’s next step is to start building a media strategy and tapping more Northern California donors. He has set an ambitious goal of matching his second-quarter haul in the third quarter and bringing his total raised for the cycle to $600,000.

“I recognize one strong fundraising quarter doesn’t make this campaign,” Bera said. “The bar is pretty high now, so I’ve got to follow that up.”

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Had Bera not turned in such a strong performance, Slaton’s haul might have been a bigger story. Despite not entering the race until early June, Slaton raised money at a very strong clip.

In just about any other race nationwide, his $228,000 total would put him No. 1 in the field of challengers.

He said he didn’t feel slighted playing second fiddle to Bera in their first fundraising reports.

“I’m focused on my race and what I have to do to be successful,” Slaton said. “I’m absolutely convinced I’m going to have the support and raise the necessary money so that after the November election, you’ll be talking to a congressman-elect.”

While Bera and Slaton are riding the plaudits of a strong quarter, though, Davis raised just $35,000 and has taken a backseat to the other two candidates in the primary. Democrats watching the race are now questioning whether the city councilman has the right profile for the contest.

But Sacramento political analyst Gary Dietrich said the fact that not one, but two, Democrats are raising big money against Lungren is, in and of itself, remarkable for a district that hadn’t been on the radar at all until 2008.

“What we’re seeing now, clearly, is the Democrats are feeling as though they have a shot at this,” Dietrich said. “You would never have envisioned a seriously competitive race for the Democratic nomination with that kind of money.”