Dan Lungren has been in and out of public office since 1979. The Republican represented a Southern California district in the '80s, served as the state's attorney general for eight years, and then returned to Congress to represent the Sacramento area in 2004.
These days, he's still the same pro-business, limited-government conservative he's always been, Lungren told a friendly audience in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova.
"There's a reason people are leaving California [and] going to Texas, leaving California [and] going to Nevada, and it's not for the weather," he told the crowd. "So I make no apologies whatsoever that I am about more jobs, not more taxes!"
Money Pouring In
That message played well in the past when his district was slightly more conservative, but now Lungren finds himself with a big target on his back.
"Just to let you know, I was informed just before I came over here, more money has been spent against me in this race than any other candidate for Congress in the country," he said.
At least that was true when he gave the speech. Since then, other races have become more expensive. But it is true that Democrats and outside PACs have spent more than $4.5 million trying to defeat Lungren.
Some of that money buys ads accusing him of being in the pocket of Wall Street and Big Oil. Then there's one by a Democratic-backed superPAC, criticizing Lungren for his opposition to stem-cell research.
"This is Rep. Dan Lungren," the ad goes. "He's running for Congress. He voted against embryonic stem-cell research. Is he a doctor?"
Lungren may not be a doctor, but his rival is. He's a first-generation American named Ami Bera.
"We've got our secret weapon and it's all of you," Bera, the Democrat in this race, told a crowded room of phone volunteers. "You guys are the reason we're going to win this thing. This is going to be one of the most important races in the country."
Redistricting Fuels Competition
Bera ran against Lungren two years ago and lost. But he's back for a rematch in a redrawn district where registered Democrats have an edge of 2 percentage points.
In the closing days of the campaign, Bera is trying to make the case to independent voters that Lungren is too ideological.
"Leadership is about saying I may disagree with you, but let's figure out where we agree, let's build on those ideas and let's go out and serve the citizens of this country and the residents of this community," Bera says. "I think Dan Lungren is going to lose because it's a failure of leadership."
But Bera's also the target of a lot of outside money. The nearly $3 million has paid for a variety of ads, including one that attacks Bera for supporting President Obama's Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
"When you go in that voting booth, you need to know who you're voting for," the ad says. "Ami Bera supports the health care law, which will increase taxes on California families and businesses and cut $716 billion from Medicare. Californians just can't risk Ami Bera in Congress."
All the outside money underscores the fact that this Sacramento-area district was designed to produce tight races, says University of Southern California political analyst Dan Schnur.
"This is precisely the type of district that Californians thought they were getting when they supported a change in the redistricting rules and gave the responsibility to an independent commission," he says. "That's not to say they were looking to endanger more Republican incumbents, rather they just wanted to see more competitive races from candidates on both sides of the aisle."
Schnur says that competition makes California's 7th Congressional District exactly the kind of suburban swing district that might help determine control of the House of Representatives.
Even the candidates themselves say this race is too close to call.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.