LOS ANGELES — The nastiest U.S. House contest in the country this year may just be a one-party affair.
For Jewish Democrats in the San Fernando Valley, it was bad enough when two of their favorite sons, 15-term Rep. Howard L. Berman and eight-term Rep. Brad Sherman, ended up in the same congressional district. It got worse — much worse — when the two decided to run against each other.
The low point came during an Oct. 11 debate at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, when Mr. Berman called his opponent a liar, and then Mr. Sherman threw his arm around the smaller, older Mr. Berman in what could be described at best as a rather vigorous hug.
Still, Andrew Lachman, past president of Democrats for Israel-Los Angeles, is not about to criticize the congressmen, not when the Southern California Jewish community is on the verge of losing one of its most ardent champions no matter what happens Nov. 6.
"You have two people who are extremely passionate about wanting to represent the valley," said Mr. Lachman. "There is a lot of angst over this race in the Jewish community because we have these two great congressmen, and whatever happens is a loss to our community."
The physical tussle at the debate underscored what has become something of a nightmare contest for California Democrats. Not only is the party guaranteed to lose a veteran congressman in November, but the $9 million-and-counting campaign is generating hard feelings among the party faithful as it sucks up resources from more critical races against Republicans.
"The so-called Berman-Sherman campaign is not a dream come true for liberal Democrats," the Los Angeles Times said in its Sept. 23 endorsement of Mr. Berman. "It ensures that money and energy is being spent by Democrats to beat Democrats in a year when most would like to see those efforts exerted elsewhere."
The sight of the legendarily well-connected Mr. Berman, a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, having to fight for his political life would have been unthinkable a few years ago. For decades, there was no job security quite like holding a California congressional seat: Legislative Democrats routinely devised political maps that ensured unshakable Democratic majorities in exchange for (fewer) secure districts for Republicans.
All that changed when voters passed in 2008 and 2010 two pivotal ballot measures: Proposition 20, which put redistricting in the hands of a bipartisan commission, and Proposition 14, which pits the two top primary vote-getters against each other in the general election, no matter what their party affiliation.
The result has been a reshuffling of traditional California congressional fiefdoms. Eight contests this year feature face-offs between members of the same party, and two of those offer incumbent-on-incumbent action: the Berman-Sherman race in the 30th Congressional District and Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson in the new 44th Congressional District.
The state's congressional delegation in 2013 is likely to reflect the state's changing demographics in the form of more Hispanic Democrats and fewer Jewish Democrats. At one time, Mr. Lachman noted, every white Democrat representing Southern California in Congress was Jewish, but "the Jewish community has not been as conscientious about developing a bench."
In the 30th, the fight has grown nasty even though Mr. Berman and Mr. Sherman agree on almost every issue. The key difference may lie in their approaches to public office. While Mr. Berman has built a reputation over 30 years as a legislative leader on Capitol Hill, Mr. Sherman has been better known for constituent service during his 16-year tenure.
"It's the famous, highly prestigious Congressman Berman running against Congressman Sherman, who may not be as famous but who knows the name of every district captain," said Los Angeles political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "They're both liberal Democrats, but neither are ideologues, so the race is more about personality than politics."
So far, the edge appears to go to Mr. Sherman, who bested his rival in the May primary by 10 percentage points and continues to lead in the polls. Analysts chalk up his edge in part to the contours of the redrawn district, which includes as much as 70 percent of Mr. Sherman's former west San Fernando Valley district and little of Mr. Berman's north valley base.
With no Republican in the race, Mr. Berman, 71, has moved to win over GOP voters by touting his bipartisan support. Now the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he has the backing of Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Rep. Darrell E. Issa.
Mr. Sherman, 57, can't compete with his rival's long list of high-profile endorsements, although he did hook one big kahuna in former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Sherman endorsed Mr. Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her 2008 presidential primary battle with Barack Obama. Mr. Berman backed Mr. Obama.
The heated exchange last week — some thought the two men might even come to blows — became the subject of a Berman attack ad released Wednesday. The 30-second spot shows video footage from the debate and says, "Brad Sherman claims to have our values. But now we know that he's ineffective, mean and too angry. Brad Sherman is just not fit to represent us."
The Sherman campaign issued a statement accusing the Berman camp of editing out the start of the kerfuffle, which started "when Berman began yelling that Sherman was a liar and delusional. Berman then went over to Sherman's table and confronted Sherman nose to nose."
"The Pierce College debate was not conducted at the highest level. I regret my part in allowing emotions to distract from the exchange of views," Mr. Sherman said in a statement after the debate.
The Sherman camp swung back Thursday with an ad criticizing Mr. Berman for his political junkets and subsequent missed votes, charging that "Howard Berman has taken more free trips than just about anyone in Congress."
With 23 congressional races between them, both candidates know how to close the sale. Look for the campaigns to jack up the intensity in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Mr. Hoffenblum said.
"Right now, Sherman is ahead, but I know the Berman organization. They believe no one pays attention to the election until the last 14 days," he said. "So I'm expecting a large flood of mailers and ads at the end."
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