Reporting from Elk Grove, Calif. — Ami Bera, a first-time congressional candidate, campaigns along the tree-lined streets of the Sacramento suburbs, toting a water bottle and shouldering the hopes of Democrats nationwide.
There is more at stake than personal ambition: A victory could help his party keep control of the House.
Republicans need a gain of 39 seats to take charge, and with dozens of imperiled Democrats across the country, polls suggest the GOP could well succeed. To reach that number, however, Republicans almost certainly must hang on to 10 or so of their own vulnerable seats.
One is held by Bera's opponent, Rep. Dan Lungren, a former state attorney general and candidate for governor. He faces the kind of criticism — too long in Washington, too much of an insider — being leveled mostly against Democrats this election season.
"I'm a doctor, not a politician," Bera says when a man in shorts and bare feet comes to the door. "We need people with real-world experience."
Lungren, seeking his fourth consecutive term in Congress and ninth overall, fights back by tying Bera to the unpopular House speaker and sounding the theme that worked so well for Democrats in 2008.
"He stands for Nancy Pelosi," the Republican lawmaker said. "I stand for change."
The list of endangered GOP seats is fairly short, reflecting not just the party's advantage at a time of economic stress and unhappiness with Washington, but also big Democratic gains in the last two elections. Most of the vulnerable Republicans have already been ousted.
Four Republican seats seem at greatest risk. Two are vacancies in Democratic-leaning Illinois and Delaware. The others are held by lawmakers representing strongly Democratic districts: Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana and Charles Djou of Hawaii, both of whom won under circumstances not likely to be repeated in November.
Two more incumbents, in Pennsylvania and Washington state, come from districts that are closely divided between the two parties and have a history of tough races. That leaves a handful of lawmakers at risk because of the strength of their challengers, including Palm Springs' Mary Bono Mack and Lungren.
Lungren may be the most endangered. He is the only Republican House member in the country lagging behind his Democratic challenger in fundraising.
Plagued by ethics issues and Bush fatigue, Lungren faced a surprisingly close race two years ago against a weak Democrat with money problems and no help from Washington. Lungren won with less than 50% of the vote. This time, Democrats have embraced Bera (pronounced BEAR-uh) as one of their top prospects nationally, pitching in with fundraising and strategic support.
"It would almost defy the laws of gravity for survivors of 2008 to lose in 2010," said David Wasserman, a handicapper for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But, he continued, "if Democrats can play anywhere, it's Lungren's district."
The 3rd Congressional District sprawls from the foreclosure-wracked subdivisions outside the state capital through Gold Country and over the Sierra to tiny Alpine County and the Nevada border. It was drawn as a solidly Republican district, but that changed in the last decade because of an influx of Democrats and independents fleeing the high costs of living elsewhere.
When Lungren won election in the district for the first time in 2004, there were 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. That lead shrank to 4,000 Republicans in the most recent count, before the June primary. President Obama narrowly won the district in 2008.
Still, Lungren, 63, has stayed true to his conservative roots, opposing the stimulus package, healthcare overhaul, Wall Street reform and other parts of Obama's agenda. (Lungren was first elected to Congress in 1978 from Long Beach. He resettled in the Sacramento area during his years as attorney general and jumped at the chance to run when the House seat came open.)
His opposition to more federal spending is not new, Lungren insists, nor is it partisan. "I was one of the first people to ring alarm bells about overspending and about earmarks, both to my Republican leadership and to George W. Bush," Lungren said. "I've been trying to shake things up ever since I got back here."
Bera, 45, took a leave as admissions dean at UC Davis School of Medicine to run for Congress. Like Lungren, he downplays his party ties, criticizing the Democratic healthcare plan — it doesn't do enough to contain costs, he says — and refusing to say whether he would support Pelosi's retention as speaker: "I haven't even thought that far in advance."
He calls for job creation, more leverage on banks to free up credit and a greener energy policy, without many specifics. During a recent phone-in town hall, he mused about raising the gas tax to reduce consumption, the way tobacco taxes have reduced smoking. The notion probably wouldn't please many commuters, though, and Bera quickly backed away.