WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans hope to gain seats this year among California's 53 congressional districts but have to settle a few intraparty fights before they can focus on appealing to wider audiences for the general election.
The most hard-fought of the primary campaigns will be two Republican contests in the Central Valley.
In one, several credible contenders have emerged as a possible fall opponent for two-term Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, a moderate who first won election in 2006 by defeating former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo.
McNerney represents the rarest of congressional districts, one roughly evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. California's rough economy and high unemployment suggest he'll have another tough race this fall.
Attorney David Harmer of San Ramon has raised more money than McNerney, never a good sign for an incumbent. Harmer, one of several Republican candidates seeking McNerney's seat, is the son of former Lt. Gov. John Harmer and just completed an unsuccessful run for Congress in the state's 10th Congressional District. He once worked as a fellow for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington that often guides the GOP's approach on domestic issues.
Brad Goehring, a grape grower, and Elizabeth Emken, an executive at an advocacy group for people with autism, also have been lauded by GOP officials in Washington for their fundraising efforts. Each has loaned their campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Retired U.S. marshal Tony Amador also could play a factor in the GOP primary for the 11th Congressional District.
Republicans also are watching a hotly contested race for the seat now held by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who is retiring after 16 years representing the state's 19th Congressional District. The winner will be favored to win the general election in the Republican stronghold.
Radanovich endorsed state Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater as his successor, but other contenders include Jim Patterson, the former mayor of Fresno, Larry Westerlund, president of the Fresno City Council and Pombo, the former congressman who served 14 years in the House.
Pombo's work to relax protections in the Endangered Species Act incensed environmental groups, which helped to oust him four years ago. That acrimony has followed him into the 19th Congressional District where the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund has aired hard-hitting ads questioning his ethics.
Pombo is hoping to turn environmentalists' opposition to an advantage in the agriculturally heavy district.
Perhaps the most unsettled intraparty fight for Democrats is the 36th Congressional District, where Rep. Jane Harman has again drawn opposition from Marcy Winograd. The race offers an interesting contrasts for voters because Harman is a member of a group of conservative Democrats referred to as Blue Dogs, while Winograd is co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Progressive Democrats of America.
Diane Watson is the only Democratic incumbent not seeking re-election. State Assemblywoman Karen Bass, the former Assembly speaker, is the heavy favorite to succeed her.
Democratic Party leaders have targeted three GOP incumbents who they believe can be defeated in the general election: Dan Lungren in a Sacramento-area district, Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs and Ken Calvert of Corona, in Southern California. They represent three of the eight GOP-held districts won by President Barack Obama in 2008.
The top Democratic challengers in those districts are generally expected to handily win their primaries. Amerish Bera, a physician, is outpacing Lungren in fundraising, while Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet is raising enough to make a serious run at Bono Mack in the general election. Meanwhile, Bill Hedrick has already raised more than he did in the previous election cycle, when he narrowly lost to Calvert.