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.
"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.
Lungren's sub-50 percent showing in 2008 was just four years after he won with 62 percent. Elsewhere, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) of California and Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R) of Ohio have seen their vote percentages fall from the mid-60s earlier in the decade to 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively, in the last election. Neither Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) of Pennsylvania nor Rep. Dave Reichert (R) of Washington, meanwhile, has ever won with more than 53 percent of the vote, though their margins of victory have remained fairly constant.
The populations in 12 of the 17 districts have grown faster than the national average this decade, according to census data. Many of them have become younger and more ethnically diverse during that period. That data provided some of the rationale for the decision to target these seats.
Speaking of Lungren's district and others like it, Andy Stone, a DCCC spokesman, says: "The fact that Obama won there, the change in population, the different demographics … those are all factors that have made the district a target."
Republicans remain confident about holding each seat the Democrats are targeting, however. The downward trend line for Republican incumbents in these districts is tied to so-called "Democratic years" – when the Democrats were overwhelmingly popular compared with the Republicans, say GOP officials.
The situation is completely different this year, says Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Changing demographics cannot compete with the national mood, she says. Gallup puts Democratic approval ratings at 33 percent.
In California, for example, Lungren took 46 percent to Bera's 38 percent, with 15 percent of voters undecided, according to a Sept. 19 poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm.
"It's all about momentum, and I think there's no doubt that the Republicans have all the intensity at the time," Ms. Burgos says. The congressmen targeted by the DCCC Red and Blue program "just had two very difficult cycles for Republicans, and they were able to survive that."
In other words, if the Democratic Party could not defeat certain Republicans in "blue" years it can't take their seats this year, either.
That is essentially the view taken by Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "You only need one hand to count the number of Republican incumbents who might lose in November, with a couple digits to spare," Mr. Gonzales says. Democrats "have credible candidates, but it's just a terrible time to run."
Still, though most predictions for the midterm election are dire for Democrats, the most reliable indicator – public opinion polls – are all over the map. A Sept. 20 Gallup poll found voters are virtually split, 46 percent to 45 percent, between Democratic and Republican supporters, respectively. An August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (which also showed a statistical tie) shows that the drop in Democratic support over the past two years has come primarily in the South. Democrats could lose seats in the South and Midwest, but some GOP seats in other regions might be vulnerable as well.