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House Republicans at risk? Districts where Democrats hope for upsets

Democrats are expected to lose House seats in Election 2010, but in districts where demographics are shifting their way they are working to upset Republican incumbents. California's Third District is one.

By Scott BlandContributor / September 27, 2010

Rep. Dan Lungren, the Republican incumbent in California's Third Congressional District, is pictured here at a news conference in April.


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Folsom, Calif.

At a house party for Ami Bera's congressional campaign, attendees peppered the candidate, a doctor, with questions about education and health care. His voice raspy from constant campaigning, Dr. Bera answered gamely, but he really hit his stride when the questioners mentioned his opponent.

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"We have to take the reins back and make government understand that it serves the will of the people," Bera said, his voice rising.

In this year of dissatisfaction with government, that rhetoric seems normal, even boilerplate. But this instance is notable because Bera is a Democrat.

Though Democrats are all but certain House seats in November, the party has developed a plan to go on the offensive in particular places this November – and Bera is a key part of it. The Democrats are targeting 17 districts where they believe the Republican incumbent is vulnerable, including California's Third Congressional District, where Rep. Dan Lungren (R) won in 2008 with less than 50 percent of the vote.

At the core of the Democrats' strategy is demographics. The 17 districts are largely places that have been transformed by infusions of young people and immigrants, changing their character and – Democrats hope – making them ripe for a switch from red to blue on the congressional map. In this way, California's Third District is a window into one of the rare places where Democrats are not on the defensive, but instead are seeking to turn the antiestablishment mood of this election cycle to their advantage.

While Republicans across the country are targeting Democrats for supporting an unloved legislative agenda that has failed to prompt strong economic growth, Democrats like Bera are trying to turn that message on its head. They paint Republican incumbents as agents of Washington gridlock for their near-lock-step opposition to President Obama's initiatives. In areas trending less conservative, the message could resonate.

For instance, Bera argues that Mr. Lungren no longer fits his changing district, which has seen the gap between registered Republicans and Democrats shrink from 7.8 percent in 2004 to 2.8 percent this year. Lungren, he notes, has voted against every major Democratic policy proposal in this Congress.

"There's been a shift demographically," Bera says. "Congressman Lungren thought he'd get elected and he would just cruise as long as he wanted to, and I think he's been representing that way by being absent while this district has changed."

The Lungren campaign did not respond before deadline to requests for comment. But Lungren has been dismissive of Democratic chances in his district. "We're better organized, we're better funded, we're better scheduled, we're better prepared than I have been in all of my congressional races," Lungren told the Elk Grove Citizen in August.

In his campaign against Lungren, Bera is trying to mobilize not just new residents but voters like Mary Beth Kropp. An administrator with the Elk Grove School District and a lifelong Republican, Ms. Kropp split her ticket between the parties in 2008, voting for Mr. Obama and Lungren. She is supporting Bera in 2010.

"I don't feel that Lungren has done anything for what I believe in as part of my community," Kropp says.

Her comments point to attitudes that Democrats hope are becoming more common in the Third District – and upon which they hope to capitalize. Kropp generally supports Obama's agenda – not completely, but mostly.

"I think the president's agenda is a good one because it deals with being real and helping people out," Kropp says.

Lungren, she says, represents "politics as usual."

The Third District in many ways typifies the 17 Republican-held districts targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in its "Red to Blue" program. Eleven of the 17, including California's Third, voted for Obama over Sen. John McCain in 2008. Moreover, support for Republican incumbents has been trending downward in those areas.