After months of negative ads, millions of dollars in outside campaign donations and even a general election, California's hotly contested 7th congressional race between Democratic challenger Ami Bera and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) remains a photo finish.
Because the race is still so close, Sacramento County election officials will spend the next several days—and maybe even weeks—sorting through almost 200,000 mail-in and provisional ballots that still remain after Election Day. As of Wednesday, Bera was clinging to a tiny lead of 50.05 percent to 49.95 percent over Lungren with all precincts reporting.
Only 184 votes separated the two candidates before election officials began counting the additional ballots Wednesday.
According to the county's web site, there are roughly 162,000 vote-by-mail ballots and 31,000 provisional ballots that need to be processed. While the 7th congressional district only includes about two-thirds of Sacramento County, election officials will have to sort through all of those ballots to count votes for Bera and Lungren's race.
County officials will issue an update on their progress by Friday at 3 p.m. On Wednesday the Sacramento Bee reported that both campaigns are girding for a long process that could take "days or even weeks."
The county's election office has 28 days to count the votes and certify a winner.
In a statement posted on his web site Wednesday, Bera said despite uncertainty over the race's outcome he felt "confident going into the next few days."
"The top priority right now is to make sure that every vote is fairly counted,” said Bera, an Elk Grove resident
Lungren, the conservative Republican incumbent hoping to win his 10th congresssional term. posted a Facebook message Wednesday thanking supporters and asking them to help track ballot counts during the coming days.
"Our race remains one of the closest contests in the nation," Lungren said, adding that he was "cautiously optimistic" about his chances to overtake Bera.
Most polls before Tuesday predicted a photo finish in one of the country's most contested congressional races, although earlier in the night Lungren spokesman Jeff Wyly said the incumbent already had an edge over Bera.
"We won the early votes and we think that bodes well for us," said Wyly, pointing out that early returns were mostly counted from mailed ballots.
But Bera's campaign pointed out those early votes are typically from conservative voters and later returns should favor the Democratic challenger.
“The fact those first round of votes that came in have us neck and neck, just within a couple hundred votes, is an extremely good sign for us,” said Bera spokesperson Josh Wolf, speaking at the challenger's Election Night headquarters before most of the returns had been counted.
Stay tuned to this page for updates on the race, as Patch will continue to provide further details as more news becomes available.
Here's a Patch story from earlier today that previewed the contest between Lungren and Bera:
One of the nation's most contested congressional races will finally be settled today.
Unless it's not. There's a good chance the race between U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) and Elk Grove Democratic challenger Ami Bera, who are locked in a duel for state's 7th congressional seat, will come down to the wire.
Lungren comfortably won the June primary after capturing 52.9 percent of the vote but Bera has caught up since then. Most polls show the race as a dead heat.
Bera and Lungren also ran against each other in 2010 for the state's 3rd congressional district. Lungren carried the seat, which has since been newly configured as the 7th district after a nonpartisan commission redrew the state's electoral districts.
Since June, the candidates have sparred over the airwaves and in person at their September debate, the only time Lungren and Bera have squared off in person.
The race has even drawn national attention for the level of vitroil traded between the two men. Former President Bill Clinton stumped for Bera at a Davis campaign event in October where he endorsed the Democratic challenger, while CREDO SuperPAC, a political group supporting progressive causes, has protested outside Lungren's townhall meetings.
The candidates have increasingly raised eyebrows lately with their criticism of one another.
During a guest spot on KFBK radio last month, Lungren dinged Bera for the challenger's no-show at several local events and released an ad accusing the Democrat of lying about his income. Bera has aired controversial TV ads blasting the incumbent's positions on stem cell research and abortion rights.
The race as become increasingly negative as outside money has poured into the race since the summer. The Associated Press reported Democrats had spent $4.7 million by late October to unseat Lungren, a nine-term congressman and former California attorney general, while the incumbent had spent $2.7 million by the same point in the race.
The bad blood between the two men goes back to 2010 when Bera lost to Lungren before the state's districts were redrawn. One of Bera's more famous TV spots that year slammed the Republican for abusing loopholes in campaign finance rules by depicting a shirtless Lungren poolside in Hawaii.
This time around both candidates have lobbed bitter accusations at each other over gas taxes, financial reform and the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
A close finish could keep election officials from determining a winner until the wee hours of the morning. Patch will have interviews with both campaigns along with photos from the candidates election headquarters this evening.
Check back for updates after returns start coming in around 8 p.m.