Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) says Democrats are "overestimating… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren's political resume is already hefty: two-term California attorney general, Republican nominee for governor and one of the few members of Congress to have represented two different districts hundreds of miles apart.
Now he can add another line: top Democratic target.
Democrats believe they have a rare shot at knocking off the long-time political figure and perhaps capturing other GOP-held seats in California in 2010, which is otherwise shaping up as a tough year nationally for the party in power.
Lungren stands out as potentially vulnerable because he won with less than 50% of the vote in a four-candidate race last year, the lowest of any state Republican incumbent and the poorest showing of any of his successful congressional campaigns.
Democrat Barack Obama narrowly carried Lungren's Sacramento-area district in the presidential race. And Lungren's probable Democratic challenger, physician Ami Bera, is a first-time candidate who has caught the attention of Democratic leaders in Washington by raising more campaign money than Lungren through Sept. 30, one of only a handful of challengers nationwide to outpace an incumbent.
"Dan Lungren's race is a rare test case of whether House Democrats can play any offense at all in 2010," said David N. Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Lungren, a veteran campaigner who's been around politics since age 6 -- when his father volunteered to be vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon's doctor -- says Democrats are "overestimating their chances and underestimating mine." He vows to mount a stronger campaign than he did in 2008.
Republicans also believe the national mood has shifted in their direction as unemployment remains stubbornly high under Democratic control of Congress and the White House. Polls bear them out: Obama's popularity has declined, especially among independents, a critical group in California's 3rd Congressional District race.
History also is on the GOP's side. The party holding the White House usually loses congressional seats in the election midway through a new president's term.
"If Democrats couldn't beat Lungren in 2008, it may be somewhat tougher in 2010 due to an improved political climate overall for Republicans," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
Still, political handicappers are closely watching the race. It is among the top House races in the nation in fundraising, drawing more than $1.7 million in the first nine months of 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which tracks money in politics.
The 3rd District, which takes in Sacramento's suburbs and extends to the Nevada border, is one of eight GOP-held districts in California that supported Obama in last year's presidential election.
Democrats believe they have a shot at defeating Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who faces a probable rematch against Democrat Bill Hedrick, president of the Corona-Norco Unified School District board. Hedrick topped Calvert in the Riverside portion of the district last year, but Calvert won on the strength of his victory in more conservative Orange County portions of the district.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) is also in the Democrats' sights. Her probable Democratic challenger is Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.
Republicans in Washington believe they have their own opportunities in California.
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) is regarded as the most vulnerable congressional Democrat in the state. He ousted a longtime GOP congressman in 2006. Several Republicans have expressed interest in challenging him, and he was the target of a Republican radio ad earlier this year attacking him for voting for a "wasteful pork-barrel program," a reference to the $787-billion economic stimulus bill.
Ultimately, the parties' interest in California races will be weighed against their needs in other areas -- a calculus that has usually resulted in little attention for the nation's most populous state.
In 2010, for example, GOP leaders are expected to expend much of their effort trying to capture seats now held by first-term Democrats in conservative districts in Southern and Midwestern states. Democrats, for their part, are likely to focus more on defending endangered members of Congress in other states than devoting limited resources to harder-to-win GOP seats in California.
Going after Lungren "would be a luxury that I don't think they can afford," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.
Republicans still hold an edge in voter registration in the district, but Democrats have narrowed the gap.