Nov. 18, 2015 — Democratic Sacramento Congressman Ami Bera is no stranger to close elections, and it appears he’s headed toward another in 2016.
Three years ago, Dr. Bera defeated then-Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA-3) in a 52-48 percent win, a spread of just under 9,200 votes. His first re-election was even closer, a 1,455-vote margin against former Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA-3) who was attempting a political comeback. In both instances, Bera trailed in the Election Day vote but his strength among the early and absentee ballots, which, in California usually accounts for about half of the vote, brought him the victories.
Now, his presumptive opponent will be Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones (R) who officially announced his challenge to Rep. Bera as the week began. Expect this to again be a highly competitive campaign in a congressional district that hosted the most expensive 2014 campaign in the United States. The two candidates combined to spend over $9 million, and there was an additional $13 million expended from outside organizations. This, in a media market that ranks as the 20th largest in the country.
The 7th District is fully contained within Sacramento County, encompassing the eastern and southern portions of the region. In effect, this district claims virtually the entire county except for the city of Sacramento and the small delta agricultural area. It combines the Sacramento suburban area along with rich agricultural lands and contains the cities of Folsom and Elk Grove.
The district is marginal, with 38.4 percent of the voters registering as Democrats compared to 36.0 percent who are Republican. Those declaring themselves as “Declined to State”, or Independent, number a substantial 20.4 percent. Contrasting to Sacramento County as a whole, Democrats enjoy a 43.0-30.4 percent advantage, with 21.3 percent registering as Declined to State.
The sheriff position here is locally powerful. The occupant traditionally enjoys high name identification and faces a countywide electorate every four years, thus Sheriff Jones will have a free ride in 2016. This contest, as are all local elections in California, is non-partisan, meaning party identification does not appear on the ballot. Sheriff Jones was re-elected in unopposed fashion last year after winning a 50-49 percent open seat contest in 2010.
Jones’ electoral history is attractive to the Republican leadership because he proved he can win in a heavily Democratic county. Without the dominant Democratic precincts contained in the city of Sacramento, the 7th District should be much more hospitable to a partisan campaign.
The fact that we are headed into a full turnout presidential election year contest, however, should help Rep. Bera. The close 2014 election with former Rep. Ose, who was probably the best possible candidate the GOP could have recruited, featured a voter turnout of 183,587. When Bera first won the seat in 2012, unseating an incumbent who two years before defeated him, saw 273,291 votes cast, almost 90,000 more than would participate in the succeeding mid-term.
In the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama carried the seat with a 51-47 percent margin over Mitt Romney. Will Hillary Clinton do as well as the Democratic nominee? At this point it is too early to tell, but the chances of the Dem general election candidate carrying the seat are high. Republicans won’t likely contest California in the presidential campaign, meaning that Sheriff Jones can expect little from what should be some Republican strength at the top of the ticket.
Rep. Bera will be considered the favorite beginning this campaign, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the CA-7 congressional contest again feature one of the nation’s closest finishes.