Results still uncertain in two California congressional races

A week after the election, it's still too soon to say whether two Democratic congressmen from Central California will be unseated or sent back to Washington for another term.

In the Central Valley, Republican cherry farmer Andy Vidak held a 27-vote lead over Rep. Jim Costa (D- Fresno) on Tuesday, but tens of thousands of ballots remain to be counted to determine whether the political neophyte will harvest the seat from the three-term incumbent.

A bit farther north, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D- Pleasanton) holds a 628-vote lead over Republican challenger David Harmer, a San Ramon attorney, with 186,300 votes counted but thousands more yet to be tallied.

Based on where the bulk of uncounted ballots come from, both Democratic incumbents will probably eke out wins, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who analyzes political races in the nonpartisan California Target Book.

That would make California the only one of the nation's 10 biggest states where no congressional incumbent lost in the Nov. 2 election, although one congressman in North Carolina may seek a recount in his apparent loss.

Hoffenblum said the closeness of the two California contests shows that Democrats who have won seats in parts of the state considered "red California" continue to face a tough challenge to hold on to the posts.

"This is one of the few areas of the state where Republicans have proven to remain competitive," he said, noting that high unemployment and a water shortage hurting agriculture have fueled voter discontent in the Central Valley portions of the two districts.

In the 20th Congressional District, where 72,900 ballots have been counted, Costa said he was unfazed at trailing by less than 30 votes a week after the election. The district includes parts of Fresno, Kern and King counties, and Democrats have a 20-percentage-point lead in voter registration.

Costa said he won by large margins in Fresno and Kern counties in election-night totals, and most of the uncounted ballots are in those counties.

"At this pace, we should have a solid lead by the time every voter's ballot is counted," Costa said in a statement.

The district was targeted by the two parties, with Democrats putting in half a million dollars attacking Vidak, while Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a group backed by Republican consultant Karl Rove, spent about $338,000 on a TV ad attacking Costa.

In the 11th Congressional District, which stretches from just east of San Jose to south of Sacramento, voter registration is evenly matched (38.99% Democrat, 39.31% Republican), so McNerney expected a tough contest as he sought reelection, spokeswoman Sarah Hersh said Tuesday.

McNerney and Harmer had observers at the registrars' offices Tuesday to watch the counting of remaining ballots. The district includes parts of four counties where party registration leans Democratic — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Santa Clara — which together still had more than a quarter of a million ballots uncounted at last report. How many of those ballots are from the 11th District is unknown.

"This thing remains very fluid and very dynamic," said Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for Harmer. "We're very optimistic."

McNerney said in a message to backers on his website that if they want to support "our efforts to ensure a fair and transparent vote counting process," they should contact his office. But Hersh said it was too early to say whether the incumbent would request a recount if he ends up behind.

"First things first. There are still a lot of absentee and provisional ballots, and then we will assess the situation," Hersh said.

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