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By KEVIN FREKING, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- Elections will never be cakewalks for Rep. Ami Bera. The nearly even split between Democratic and Republican voters in California's 7th Congressional District means the freshman Democrat is likely to confront a strong challenger each two-year election cycle.
Three GOP challengers have jumped into the race this year yet have their own hurdles to scale as they attempt to move beyond the June primary. Bera is expected to survive the top-two primary and run for re-election in November.
COMPETITIVE CONGRESSIONAL RACES
A look at the most competitive California House races in this year's midterm elections, based on demographics, fundraising reports and interviews with political analysts and Republican and Democratic strategists.
21st Congressional District (Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties):
Republican Rep. David Valadao has two Democratic challengers, Amanda Renteria and John Hernandez.
Valadao, a freshman, represents what should be a Democratic stronghold. About 46 percent of the district's voters are registered Democrats, versus 32 percent Republican. President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein won the district by double-digit percentage points in 2012, but Valadao breezed to victory against Hernandez, who struggled to raise money and organize a campaign.
Renteria worked on Capitol Hill as an aide to Feinstein and then as chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. She grew up in the Central Valley, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant farmworker, and went on to play basketball and softball at Stanford University. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is supporting her candidacy.
Valadao grew up on a dairy farm in the center of the district. He led the GOP's efforts on legislation that would divert more water to farms in the Central Valley and signed onto a Democratic-led bill seeking an immigration overhaul. About 70 percent of the district's voters are Hispanic.
Valadao and Renteria had similar fundraising efforts for the first quarter of 2014: Valadao raised about $322,000 while Renteria raised about $303,000. Valadao had a much larger advantage last time.
52nd Congressional District (San Diego):
Democratic Rep. Scott Peters has three Republican challengers, Carl DeMaio, Kirk Jorgensen and Fred Simon.
Peters is a freshman lawmaker serving a congressional district in which Republicans have a nearly 6,000-vote edge among registered voters. That alone makes this district an automatic target for national Republicans seeking to keep control of the House.
Peters served on the San Diego City Council for eight years and worked as an environmental lawyer before that. He was helped two years ago by President Barack Obama's 6-percentage point victory in the district but will not have Obama on the ticket to boost turnout this time.
DeMaio is a former member of the San Diego City Council who focused his efforts on reining in pension costs. If elected, he would be the House's first openly gay Republican.
Jorgensen is a former Marine. Simon is a surgeon who so far has loaned his campaign about $1.3 million.
7th Congressional District (suburbs to the south and east of Sacramento):
Democratic Rep. Ami Bera has three Republican challengers in what could be the state's most interesting primary election because of the depth and backgrounds of the Republican roster, which features Igor Birman, Elizabeth Emken and Doug Ose.
The Republicans' national campaign committee lists all three in its recruiting program that identifies competitive campaigns.
Birman was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States as a refugee in 1994. He served as chief of staff to Rep. Tom McClintock before taking a leave of absence to run for Congress. He is getting support from tea party groups.
Ose served three terms in Congress before leaving to honor a term-limits pledge. He supported the Bush tax cuts and the educational overhaul referred to as No Child Left Behind. He is a moderate on social issues such as abortion and gun control. An organization called Gun Owners of America has spent about $16,000 on mail opposing Ose. To firm up his appeal to conservatives, he signed a pledge not to raise income tax rates.
Emken failed to survive the Republican primary in 2010 in a different congressional district. She also was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against incumbent Dianne Feinstein in 2012 but lost overwhelmingly. She could benefit if voters get turned off by the rhetoric between Birman and Ose.
Bera is a freshman who won his second try for Congress with 52 percent of the vote. The district is one of the most closely divided in the state with registered Democratic voters exceeding registered Republican voters by about 2 percentage points.
31st Congressional District (San Bernardino County):
Republican Rep. Gary Miller opted not to seek re-election. Fortune shined on Miller in the 2012 election cycle: So many Democrats ran for the newly redrawn seat that none finished in the top two during the primary, leaving Miller and another GOP candidate to fight it out in the general election. Miller, serving a district where Democrats enjoy a 21,000-plus voter registration edge over Republicans, declined to seek a ninth term.
Four Democratic candidates and three Republicans are running for the open seat.
Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar will run again. He has received support from the party's national campaign committee with its chairman, Steve Israel, attending a Washington fundraiser on his behalf. The state Democratic Party also endorsed him.
Former Rep. Joe Baca also is vying for the seat after serving six full terms in the House and part of another before he lost to Gloria Negrete McLeod in the 2012 general election in another district. Earlier this year, Baca called Negrete McLeod a bimbo when she announced she would not seek re-election after serving just one term. He subsequently apologized. To offset the damage, his campaign website details a list of women he has supported over the years.
Aguilar raised $262,000 in the latest quarter and has $683,000 in the bank. Baca raised $33,000 and has $28,622 in the bank.
Eloise Gomez Reyes, a lawyer from San Bernardino, and Danny Tillman, a school board member in San Bernardino, round out the Democratic field. Reyes has backing from Emily's List, which supports female candidates who are pro-abortion rights. She raised $201,000 in the latest quarter and has $534,824 in the bank, making her a serious contender.
The top two Republicans challengers are Paul Chabot, an Iraq War veteran who runs a national security consulting firm, and Leslie Gooch, a longtime aide to Miller.
26th Congressional District (Ventura County):
Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley is a freshman lawmaker serving a mostly Ventura County district in which Democrats enjoy a 6 percentage point edge among registered voters.
Republicans think they have a formidable challenger in state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, a former prosecutor and current member of the U.S. Navy Reserve who served two yearlong stints in Afghanistan. He has applauded congressional efforts to undertake immigration reform, calling on the House to follow the Senate's example in approving a bill.
Rafael Alberto Dagnesses, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department who now oversees a real estate firm, also is running as a Republican.
36th Congressional District (Riverside County, mostly Coachella Valley):
Rep. Raul Ruiz is another Democratic freshman who faces a difficult re-election.
Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by about 5,000 in the district. President Barack Obama won it by about 3 percentage points in his two elections, but he's not on the ticket this time to help turn out Democratic voters.
Ruiz, the son of migrant farmworkers, was an emergency room doctor until winning election to Congress. He faces two Republican challengers -- state Assemblyman Brian Nestande and former lawmaker Ray Haynes.
Nestande is getting support from Republican members of the state's congressional delegation and from Republicans in Washington. He once served as the chief of staff for Sonny Bono and then for his wife, Mary Bono.
Haynes got into the race late, waiting until March to enter. He served in the Legislature from 1993 until 2007, representing western portions of the congressional district.
Ruiz has $1.5 million in cash on hand, far more than either of the GOP challengers. That's an advantage, but it could be diminished if outside groups jump into the race, which is likely.
10th Congressional District (Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties):
Jeff Denham won election to his second term with 53 percent of the vote in one of the state's most evenly divided congressional districts. Republicans hold a 1.6 percentage point edge over Democrats among registered voters.
Denham was the first Republican lawmaker to sign onto an immigration overhaul that provides a path to citizenship and has led the efforts in Congress to stop any new federal money from going to the California High Speed Rail project.
His primary Democratic challenger is Michael Eggman, an almond and honey farmer, who raised about $600,000 last quarter.
25th Congressional District (northern Los Angeles County and Simi Valley):
Rep. Buck McKeon's retirement helped make this district competitive. Republicans enjoy a 2.5 percentage point edge among registered voters.
Four Republicans are running, including state Sen. Steve Knight and former state Sen. Tony Strickland, who received McKeon's endorsement to succeed him.
On the Democratic side, Dr. Lee Rogers, a podiatrist, is running again after gaining 45 percent of the vote in his losing 2012 bid against McKeon.
Evan Thomas, who served 28 years in the Air Force, also is running as a Democrat.
3rd Congressional District (eight counties north and west of Sacramento):
Democratic Rep. John Garamendi won a third term with 54 percent of the vote in 2012. National Republican
Over the coming month, the Republicans will provide voters in the Sacramento-area district a glimpse of the strains that have dominated other Republican intraparty battles nationally.
The race features a tea party favorite, Igor Birman, who seeks to become the first member of Congress born in the former Soviet Union; a former congressman, Doug Ose; and Elizabeth Emken, who has lost in previous congressional and U.S. Senate races but could benefit if voters chafe at the combative tone of the contest between Birman and Ose.
Mindful of the nearly even voter registration split in his district, Bera emphasizes his work with a bipartisan group of 94 lawmakers from both houses who call themselves the Problem Solvers Coalition. They meet regularly to find issues on which they can reach agreement.
"When I think about what the Republicans are talking about in our district, it's not a conversation about working across the aisle," Bera said.
The race for the 7th Congressional District seat is among a half dozen highly competitive contests in the June 3 primary, including a Kern County one. That competition is largely a result of California's independent redistricting process, which has ensured a slate of lively contests after decades of lopsided affairs that generally ensured victory for entrenched incumbents.
The top two candidates regardless of party affiliation will move on to the general election.
Nationally, Democratic Party officials hope to continue the gains they made in 2012, when California provided four of the eight House seats gained nationally. Meanwhile, Republicans hope to end their long slide in California and use the state as a springboard for expanding their House majority.
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats around the country to regain control of the House, a number few believe obtainable given how few districts are truly in play.
The state also will see robust intraparty battles in which longstanding incumbents such as Democrat Mike Honda and Republican Tom McClintock will face challenges from members of their own party. The delegation is losing two long-serving members when Democrats Henry Waxman and George Miller retire after serving out their 20th terms, but their seats are expected to stay in Democratic hands.
The most vulnerable Democratic incumbents appear to be four freshmen. In addition to Bera, they are Reps. Raul Ruiz from the Coachella Valley, Scott Peters from San Diego and Julia Brownley, who represents a mostly Ventura County seat.
Democrats have targeted Republican Rep. David Valadao. His agricultural district south of Fresno has about 28,500 more registered Democratic voters than Republican ones. The Democrats also have a good chance of picking up the Inland Empire seat of retiring Republican Rep. Gary Miller.
"No question our success nationally will require success locally in California, and that means the re-election of our four front-line Democrats in California and it means beating Republicans in at least two districts," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ruiz and Peters represent districts with more Republican voters than Democratic ones. With President Barack Obama on the ticket in 2012, turnout boosted the Democrats' win totals. This time, the turnout model favors Republicans, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip from Bakersfield.
To help end the GOP slide in California, McCarthy said it is critical for Republican candidates to offer solutions and make voters feel welcome. As an example, he cited Jeff Gorell, one of two GOP candidates attempting to defeat Brownley.
The Afghanistan war veteran won a state Assembly district that contains more Democrats than Republicans. He also supports comprehensive immigration reform.
McCarthy also cited Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego mayoral candidate who is one of three Republicans challenging Peters in the 52nd Congressional District. He would be the first openly gay Republican in Congress if he were to survive the primary and then win the general election.
The Republican contest in Bera's 7th Congressional District already has begun to generate national attention.
Birman came to the U.S. at age 13 from the former Soviet Union and was working as McClintock's chief of staff before deciding to mount his own campaign for Congress.
He has adopted the blueprint McClintock used to defeat Ose in the 2008 GOP primary, labeling Ose as one of the more liberal Republicans in Congress when he served from 1999-2005.
"The voters don't want to send a Republican back to Congress who campaigns as a conservative and votes as a liberal," Birman said.
While in Congress, Ose voted with Republicans in favor of the Bush tax cuts that were passed in 2001 and 2003. But he also supported new spending that has drawn the scorn of some conservatives, such as voting for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients.
Ose also took lessons from the 2008 race. He is showcasing a pledge he signed to oppose any increase in income tax rates, a pledge his two Republican opponents also took. He also is highlighting his local roots.
"There isn't any question that I'm the choice of the local folks. I'll readily concede that Bera and Birman have done far better cultivating contacts in Washington, D.C., with special interest than I have," he said.
If Emken were to win, she could be the lone woman in California's Republican congressional delegation.
"I'm a huge believer that, if we don't expand our messengers and better represent the diversity of our country, then we will continue to have issues," Emken said of the GOP.