RIO LINDA, Calif. — When Sue Lyon went to hear Democratic challenger Ami Bera at an area house party, she didn’t think he’d be interested in holding a similar event in her hometown, which often serves as the butt of jokes for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“I doubted that he would want to come to Rio Linda because you see what it is,” Lyon said, gesturing to the parched grass and rundown houses that line the streets of the economically depressed Sacramento suburb. “People don’t come to Rio Linda.”
But Bera surprised the self-proclaimed “rabid Democrat” by scheduling an event at her house in late August.
Bera showed up with his shirtsleeves rolled up on the hot Sunday afternoon, ready to answer questions from the nearly two-dozen people interested in meeting the alternative to three-term Republican Rep. Dan Lungren on the November ballot.
The frustration among attendees was palpable. Rio Linda residents peppered Bera with questions on his vision for the education system, expressed irritation with the Democratic Party for letting conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck and movements such as the tea party control the political dialogue, and asked what Bera could do to bring jobs back to the U.S.
Through it all, the physician and first-time candidate kept his cool, directing the frustration to his opponent.
Noting health care reform, the housing crisis and economic slowdown, Bera said, “Instead of moving forward … here in this community, in this region, I think we’re moving backward, and I don’t think our current Representative, Dan Lungren, is addressing those issues.”
Bera said that, unlike Lungren, he would have supported legislative efforts on health care and to extend unemployment benefits that would put the country on more solid footing. Supporting policy like that would also make areas like Rio Linda more viable for businesses, jobs and opportunity, he added.
Bera’s race against Lungren would seem to be an uphill climb given the strong headwind against Democrats this cycle. But Bera is one of only a handful of Democratic challengers viewed as having a shot at unseating a Republican in the fall elections. He has led Lungren in total fundraising this cycle, and he ended June with a notable cash-on-hand advantage: $1.1 million to $802,000.
Bera is counting on being able to offset the anti-Democratic mood by tapping into an anti-incumbent sentiment instead.
Lungren is a former California attorney general and previously was a Congressman from Long Beach — a résumé that lends itself to the narrative of career politician versus political neophyte.
“People are really starved for leaders actively engaging. … All they see is someone saying no,” Bera said, noting Lungren’s opposition to the stimulus bill, financial bailouts and health care reform.
He added: “There’s only one career politician in this race, and that’s Dan Lungren.”
But just as Bera is trying to tie Lungren to the national Republican Party, the California Republican has moved to dismiss any notion that he is a yes-man for the GOP and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I’ve been an advance scout for this movement,” Lungren said, noting his criticism of President George W. Bush for not vetoing Congressional spending bills and his decision to challenge Boehner for Minority Leader.
Lungren said he is experiencing a stronger intensity among people who come to events or stop him in the middle of the street than during his entire political career.
“I’ve seen a very, very strong anti-Democratic Party position.” Lungren said. “I’ve been fighting [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and the ideas of Nancy Pelosi, and [Bera] wants to keep her in power and parrot her ideas.”
Lungren appears to be taking Bera’s challenge seriously, a relief to Republican operatives. Democratic interest in challenging the lawmaker was sparked after his surprisingly close race in 2008. He defeated physician Bill Durston by only 5 points in a contest that neither national party targeted. President Barack Obama also narrowly carried the district in 2008, and Durston was no doubt aided by his coattails.
“I’ve won very close races and I’ve won blowouts, but I never underestimate my opponent,” Lungren said.
The Congressman spent August crisscrossing the district. He held three town halls, one telephone town hall and 28 speeches, and put in 60 other appearances across the area.
Although Democrats are optimistic about their chances of knocking off Lungren this cycle, Bera still lags in name recognition. He’ll need to spend heavily to first introduce himself to voters and then to sell them on the reasons they should fire Lungren.
But for some Democrats like Rio Linda’s Lyon, Bera’s effort to spend time in politically less-traveled areas bodes well for unseating Lungren.
“If you look at his district, it’s huge,” Lyon said. “We want to be, you know, involved. Just because we live here doesn’t mean we can’t be.”