WASHINGTON — Two high-achieving Central Valley Democrats, a physician and a former astronaut, joined their political peers this week in a quick Capitol Hill course intended to help them topple Republican incumbents.
"It's the basics, Politics 101," said San Joaquin County native Jose Hernandez, the former astronaut.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee convened Hernandez, Ami Bera and more than 100 other House Democratic candidates from 36 states for lessons about the media, fundraising and other campaign fundamentals.
The gathering was designed both to groom and showcase the chief Democratic hopes for retaking the House. Group lectures, some presented via PowerPoint, delivered part of the message; one-on-one, there was a lot of mutual sizing-up.
Hernandez is a first-time candidate, though he said he's been thinking seriously about running for the past 18 months. He is challenging Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, to represent a newly drawn district that includes Stanislaus County and portions of southern San Joaquin County.
Bera is mounting his second challenge against Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, in a newly redrawn district that's centered in eastern Sacramento County and dips into northern San Joaquin County.
"We're reconnecting with people," Bera said Thursday. "We're making sure people know that it's a new district, and making sure people know we don't have a primary opponent."
But some political lessons conveyed this week came courtesy of the Republicans themselves, who foreshadowed the tenor of the campaigns to come as they painted the visiting Democrats as mere liberal lapdogs.
"President Obama is counting on Jose Hernandez to return Nancy Pelosi to the Speaker's chair so they can promote more of their failed taxing, spending and borrowing spree," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay declared in a press statement.
Republicans issued dozens of essentially identical press statements concerning other Democrats, changing only the candidates' names.
Republicans currently control the House by a 242-192 margin.
Bera dismissed the Republican attacks as a tired reprise, arguing that anti-Pelosi sentiment has less resonance now than several years ago. Hernandez likewise shrugged it off, saying that he was prepared to "go tit-for-tat" with Republicans.
"I'm going into this with my eyes fully open," Hernandez said. "I know what I'm getting into."
Both Hernandez and Bera already have mastered the kind of congressional district details that other political professionals obsess over. For Hernandez, these include the fact that the new 10th Congressional District is 40 percent Hispanic. For Bera, these include the fact that Democratic presidential candidates carried the new 7th Congressional District in both 2004 and 2008.
Both Hernandez and Bera also have embraced the fact, uncomfortable to some, that asking a lot of people for a lot of money is part of the political job. Hernandez said he expects to raise $300,000 by Dec. 31, and notes he has fundraising experience through a foundation he established.
"I have an extensive list of folks I have crossed paths with," Hernandez said. "I'm not shy about picking up the phone."
Hernandez only declared his official candidacy recently and has not yet had to file a campaign fundraising report. Denham reported having $610,147 available.
Bera reported having $707,760 in available; he loaned his own campaign $200,000 that has not yet been repaid. Lungren reports having $421,887 on hand and no campaign debts.
"Obviously, you have to have resources to get your message out," Bera said.
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