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The Riggs Report: Another 2016 slugfest

Race for Sacramento congressional seat will be expensive

It’s long been true in politics that an incumbent traditionally enjoys an important advantage when it comes to election time. That’s not the case, though, for whoever occupies California’s Congressional District 7, which encompasses Elk Grove, Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Sacramento County’s foothills to the east.

Since 2012, that’s been Democrat Ami Bera. In 2014, the physician and former UC Davis medical school executive won re-election to a second term, squeaking to a razor-thin win by about 1,500 votes, or less than 1 percent of the votes cast.

Bera beat former congressman Doug Ose after a bruising battle that won notoriety as the most expensive House race in the country. Super PACs from out of the area, as well as local interests, dug deep.

The Sacramento air waves were packed with campaign ads, many of them hit pieces. By the time the dust settled, almost $20 million dollars had been spent on both sides.

It’s looking like a similar fight over the seat is shaping up for 2016, with the announcement this week that Republican Scott Jones, the Sacramento County sheriff, is jumping into the race. If he can raise adequate cash, Jones has the potential to be a formidable opponent, with strong name identification from his five years as sheriff. Jones also won extensive attention last year when he posted a video to YouTube, criticizing President Obama’s immigration policies.

Congressman Bera will benefit next year from higher Democratic turnout in a presidential election year.

But the district’s numbers make the seat vulnerable.

Democrats have only a slight registration advantage of 38.4 percent, compared to 36 percent for Republicans. Twenty percent of the district’s registered voters list no party preference.

Bera also angered the California Labor Federation this year with his support of fast-track authority for President Obama in a major trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Whether labor will retaliate next year is a key question. Jones said this week he intends to focus criticism on President Obama’s policies, not trash Bera.

But the candidate doesn’t get to make that choice in cases like this. When Super PACs jump in, they can spend the money as they like. That means voters in the 7th District can expect to be carpet-bombed with more negative TV ads next year.

It also means the race will once again receive national attention as a key battleground. And Ami Bera, unlike most incumbents, will be facing another tough fight for survival.