WASHINGTON — As Democrats try to fatten their lead in the House of Representatives in next year's midterm elections, they're taking the fight to Republican turf, and they have California Rep. Dan Lungren, a champion of low taxes and limited government, in their crosshairs.
Lungren, 62, won an eighth term in Congress last year, but he received fewer than half the votes in California's 3rd District, which reaches from the Sacramento area to the Nevada border. The district's minority population has grown dramatically since 2000, and while Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the 3rd District by 2 percentage points, President Barack Obama carried it last year.
The national Democratic and Republican parties are targeting the district, and the race is expected to be one of the hottest in the nation. In California, Democrats are focusing their efforts on eight incumbent Republicans, and they consider Lungren one of the most vulnerable.
"There is a sense that while the district has changed, he hasn't changed with it," said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Smelling blood, Democrats are pouring money into the district, and three challengers already have surfaced.
One of them, physician Ami Bera, is a political novice who raised more than $288,000 in the second quarter of the year, making him one of only four Democratic challengers in the country to raise more money than a Republican incumbent did.
Bera, 44, said that health care would be the driving issue in his campaign. He said that all Americans should have access to a "compassionate base line" of health care and that people shouldn't lose their coverage if they move to other states or switch jobs.
The other Democratic challengers are Sacramento Municipal Utility District Director Bill Slaton, who raised $228,000, nearly as much as Lungren's $233,000, and Elk Grove City Council Member Gary Davis, who raised $34,000.
Lungren acknowledged that his district is losing Republican voters, but he's expecting 2010 to be a little easier than the presidential year of 2008. He said that he and other Republican candidates were hurt last year when Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, gave up on California and stopped campaigning there.
While Obama carried the district by 1,900 votes, Lungren said, President George W. Bush won it by 54,000 votes in 2004, and Lungren predicted that there'll be less enthusiasm for Obama and Democrats next year, producing a lighter voter turnout.
Regardless, Lungren said, he has a record of bipartisanship in Congress, and he added that he'll campaign on a record of fiscal responsibility.
"I think the people of my district have not changed from that attitude," he said. "And if my district has changed such that people are more inclined to big government, big spending, big taxing and big borrowing, then I would say it wouldn't be a good fit for my district."
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