- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Democrat Ami Bera retained his Sacramento County congressional seat two years ago by the slimmest of margins - fewer than 1,500 votes, many drummed up by union supporters who helped him tip the balance in a district that had long been held by Republicans.

As Democrats dream of regaining control of the U.S. House this election year, however, some labor organizations are backing Bera’s latest Republican challenger despite the chance that could throw the race.

The infighting in a key swing district highlights battles in more than a dozen of California’s 53 congressional contests in the June 7 primary.

This year’s congressional candidates include former gubernatorial firebrand Tim Donnelly, who is now trying to unseat fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Cook in a district northeast of Los Angeles; embattled Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, who is attempting to oust fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano in the San Gabriel Valley area despite his own marital woes; and Emilio Jesus Huerta, son of United Farm Workers organizer Dolores Huerta, seeking the chance to challenge GOP U.S. Rep. David Valadao in the southern Central Valley.

In Orange County, two former state legislators and a mayor are among eight candidates trying for the seat being given up by Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez as she runs for the U.S. Senate. And north of Los Angeles, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Knight is fighting for his political life in a district evenly split in voter registration between the political parties.

In the Sacramento-area race, Bera is seeking a third two-year term in the 7th Congressional District, where Democrats hold just a 3-point edge in voter registration; 21 percent of registered voters have no party preference.

Bera faces Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican who has made an issue of President Barack Obama’s immigration enforcement after a Mexican national in the country illegally was charged with killing two sheriffs’ deputies in 2014.

But it is organized labor’s opposition to Obama’s foreign trade agenda that first alienated key Bera supporters. Bera supported the departing Democratic president’s bid for “fast track” negotiating authority for a Trans-Pacific Partnership that Congress could ratify or reject, but not change. Bera says he has not decided if he will support the deal itself.

That triggered a television ad campaign against Bera last summer by the AFL-CIO union, which fears the pact could cost the U.S. jobs. The pressure hasn’t let up despite warnings that the split could tip the seat into Republican control.

Carpenters and Teamsters regional councils both took the unusual step of endorsing Jones while chiding Bera for not sufficiently backing labor.

“There have been people in the Democratic Party that say, ‘Look, we understand you have issues with Ami Bera but we can’t afford to lose that seat.’ Our response has been, ‘Well, we’ve already lost that seat,’” said Doug Bloch, the Teamsters regional political director. “It really has national ramifications and, in our opinion, really has a lot to do with labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party, too.”

Jones said he didn’t set out to woo organized labor, but promises an open door.

“Folks understand the stakes here,” responded Bera. “I think it’s reinforced that I’m not a politician.”

Farther south in the Central Valley, Democrats are hoping Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, will help them pick up the 10th Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto.

Democrats are trying to knock off Denham by tying him to Trump’s coattails in a largely agricultural district with a large and growing Latino population, where Republicans hold just a 2 percentage point advantage in voter registration.

Michael Eggman of Modesto, brother of Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, lost to Denham two years ago but is seeking a rematch in the four-way primary election. ‘

“If Trump is the nominee, that is a huge problem for Denham,” said Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney. Linking Trump’s anti-immigration views to Denham is unfair but likely effective, he said.

Trump could also imperil other Republican incumbents including Valadao in the southern Central Valley, he said, while insulating Southern California Democrats who might otherwise be in danger, like U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar of San Bernardino in the 31st Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert in the 36th Congressional District.

“In most districts in California, Trump would be a big liability for Republicans,” Pitney said.

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