WASHINGTON — Democratic strategists on Wednesday put more serious muscle behind two Central Valley congressional challengers.
Now, get ready for the advertising deluge.
In a move that opens up campaign pocketbooks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee elevated Dr. Ami Bera of Sacramento County and former astronaut Jose Hernandez of San Joaquin County to the highest priority in the party's bid to reclaim the House.
"They are problem solvers," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the DCCC, which works to elect as many Democrats as possible to the House of Representatives. "Who can be more of a problem-solver than an astronaut, who has to decide 'all systems are go'"?
On Wednesday, Bera and Hernandez joined 16 other top-ranked Democrats on the party's designated first team of challengers, dubbed "Red to Blue" candidates for their potential to take back Republican seats.
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. Democratic presidential candidates carried the newly redrawn and renumbered 7th Congressional District in both 2004 and 2008.
Hernandez is challenging Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, to represent a district that includes Stanislaus County and portions of southern San Joaquin County. The population of the newly redrawn and renumbered 10th Congressional District is 40 percent Hispanic.
Israel leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is trying to overcome Republicans' current 242-192 advantage in the House. The job includes identifying the most promising challengers, using what Israel repeatedly called "clear-eyed, cold-blooded metrics" such as proven fundraising prowess.
In addition to the 18 specified candidates, an additional 18 competitive districts, for which the Democratic nominee is still in question, were designated "Red to Blue" districts. Four of the latter are in Southern California and five are in Illinois.
"The battleground to take back the House for us goes through California and Illinois," Israel told reporters.
The party promises to focus money, grassroots support, strategic guidance and more on the targeted races. Republicans, in turn, promise to fight back hard.
"We always expected them to be serious about running a campaign here," Denham's campaign consultant, Dave Gilliard, said Wednesday, adding that "we're very confident" about the upcoming race.
Bera, in a statement, called the "Red to Blue" designation "highly prestigious," but it is no guarantee of success. Bera was one of 13 Democratic candidates selected for the first round of "Red to Blue" aid during the 2010 campaign. He lost to Lungren by a 50 percent to 43 percent margin. The dozen other initially designated Democrats all lost in 2010 as well.
"Last election was a perfect storm of gale-force winds against us," Israel said, insisting that now "we have the wind at our backs."
The DCCC raised $56 million last year in the pre-season effort to elect House Democrats. Israel's counterparts with the National Republican Congressional Committee raised $51 million.
Widespread public dissatisfaction with Congress could also aid Democrats, the party out-of-power in the House. Eighty-four percent of Californians surveyed by the Field Poll last month voiced disapproval of how Congress operates.
Nonetheless, a number of close political observers — including political analyst Charles Cook and insiders from both parties surveyed regularly by the National Journal magazine — have continued to opine that Republicans will retain House control.
The Republicans, moreover, maintain their own means of marketing candidates. The GOP campaign organization includes a "Patriot Program" to help targeted incumbents raise money, as well as a "Young Guns" program whose participants include 24-year-old San Joaquin County resident Ricky Gill, now challenging Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.
Bera reported raising $1.1 million last year and had $918,873 on hand as of Dec. 31. A spokesman for Lungren's campaign could not be reached to discuss campaign fundraising.
Fundraising figures were not available for either Denham or Hernandez. The complete year-end fundraising reports will become public Jan. 31.
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