In the first skirmish of a hotly contested Congressional race, Elk Grove resident and Democrat Ami Bera and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) traded jabs over medicare, jobs and outside influences on Washington in a televised debate Tuesday in Sacramento.
The pair are running in California's newly redistricted Congressional District 7, in a race being watched closely by analysts, outside donors, national media outlets and local residents. Their debate, sponsored by News10, The Sacramento Bee and Capital Public Radio, was streamed live online on the websites of those organizations and will be broadcast on television 10 a.m. Wednesday.
One of the first issues to come up was jobs: Bera said the country needs an investment in infrastructure and for banks to lend more freely. Lungren said Congress should stop "the rash of lawsuits [businesses] receive under ADA [The Americans with Disabilities Act]."
Lungren said he would seek a repeal of the federal healthcare reform and would replace it with insurance pools for high-risk patients and the ability to buy health insurance across state lines.
Bera, a physician, said the healthcare reform act "doesn't address the cost of care" and isn't the type of reform he would have sought.
On the issue of global warming, Lungren said the question is "who caused it and is it caused predominately by human activity." He criticized Democrats for trying to "basically ruin the coal industry."
Bera said he would push for the United States to become energy-independent.
Asked about bipartisanship, Bera distanced himself from the Democratic majority: He said he disagreed with the federal Race to the Top program, and was critical of President Barack Obama for "not addressing the housing crisis early enough."
Lungren said he "probably [has] as many pieces of legislation that are bipartisan as any member."
Asked what they thought was "the most dangerous" interest group in Washington, Lungren said he didn't want to see government telling anyone "you shouldn't be talking so much."
"What do you want to do?" Lungren asked. "Do you want to say people don't have the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances?"
Bera quickly replied that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case—which lifted limits on political spending by corporations—was having a dangerous influence on Washington.
At one point in the debate, Bera said he would not fund California's high-speed rail project, and would prefer to see that money invested in levees and other infrastructure projects. Lungren took him to task for changing his position.
"Two years ago, you were for it," Lungren said. "You were for it before you're against it, and maybe later you'll be against it again."
Bera interjected, saying: "That might make a nice TV ad."
Explaining that shift in opinion later to reporters, Bera said the economy has worsened.
"We're deeper in debt than we were two years ago," he said. "There are more important infrastructure projects."
Protestors from both sides demonstrated outside the event, with about 40 Planned Parenthood supporters and Florin residents competing with eight Sac State College Republicans.
Jefferson McGee said he and other Florin residents have been urging Lungren to hold a public meeting in that area for months. Jordan Gurnett, the chair of the Sac State College Republicans, declined to comment but provided a handout saying Bera's "true job now is as a landlord and an investor."
Bera and Lungren Have Competitive History Together
This is the first time the two have debated, and the only meeting scheduled so far, but the candidates are familiar with each other by now: They met in the 2010 election, with Lungren beating Bera by 7 percentage points in Congressional District 3. The race was close in 2010, and it's been close in 2012.
In the June primary election, Lungren edged out Bera by capturing 53 percent of the vote to Bera's 41. But since then, Democrats have eked out a slight lead in the amount of registered voters they can boast in the district, according to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office: As of May 21, the two parties were virtually tied, with Republicans boasting about 1,000 more registered voters. As of Sept. 7, Democrats hold the lead, with 39.2 percent of registered voters in the district as compared to 38.4 percent for Republicans.
The district includes Elk Grove, Fair Oaks, Carmichael, Citrus Heights, Rosemont and other areas.
The Rothenburg Report has the competition between Bera and Lungren listed as a "pure toss-up," and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted it as one of its seven "Red to Blue" races in California. The Sacramento Bee described it in June as part of the 25 seats Democrats need to regain a majority in the House of Representatives.
The race has seen an influx of high-dollar spending by outside organizations. OpenSecrets.org reports that California's Congressional District 7 has seen more outside spending than any other race in the state, including more than $300,000 in opposition of Bera and $1.2 million opposing Lungren.
A March episode of "This American Life" looked at the influence a $680,000 ad campaign had on Bera's campaign the last time the two candidates faced each other. This time, it will likely be much more than that. In addition to the outside spending, Bera has raised nearly $2 million during this election cycle, while Lungren has raised $1.7 million.