- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.

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. 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 are hoping 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 county to regain control of the House, a number few believe obtainable given how few districts are truly in play across the country.

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.