In a Northern California swing district, mudslinging and allegations of wrongdoing have been the focal point of what will likely be one of the tightest congressional races in the state.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) faces a tough reelection battle for his seat in the 7th Congressional District against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican. Bera is under scrutiny due to revelations that his father illegally funneled money to two of his past campaigns. Jones has been confronted with allegations that he sexually harassed a subordinate at the Sheriff's Department more than a decade ago, which he denies.
In Bera's last election, 39 percent of registered voters were Democrats and 36 percent were Republican, according to data from the nonpartisan California Target Book. Nearly 20 percent registered with no party preference.
Bera eked out a narrow victory in that election, winning by less than a percentage point.
"This race is always one of the closest races in the country," Bera said. "It's pretty evenly split Democrat and Republican, much like our entire country is."
In August, Bera's father was sentenced to a year and a day in jail for illegally funneling money to his son's congressional campaigns in 2010 and 2012. The congressman has denied knowing anything about the scheme, in which his father paid or reimbursed donors for campaign contributions, allowing him to effectively exceed the legal maximum in individual contributions.
"My father made a grave mistake," he told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. "Had we known what was going on, we would have put a stop to it immediately."
Jones' campaign has been plagued by allegations of sexual harassment. In a court deposition, a female deputy working for Jones said he made multiple unwanted sexual advances to her more than a decade ago, the Sacramento Bee reported in July. Jones has denied the allegations.
At an event at his campaign's Carmichael office earlier this month, Bera used the allegations and Jones' stance on immigration to compare his opponent to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has recently faced claims of sexual harassment from multiple women.
"Is there anyone in this room who thinks Donald Trump would be a good president?" he asked, drawing laughs from the crowd of roughly 20 volunteers and staffers. "We can prevent Donald Trump's clone from becoming a member of Congress."
Jones himself has said he decided not to vote for Trump because of his comments about women. At a debate between the two candidates on Tuesday, Jones pointed to a video of Trump that surfaced earlier this month.
In the video, Trump bragged about kissing and groping women without their consent. Jones said he supported Trump for his policies, not his character, until the video surfaced.
"He was talking about things that we've arrested people for," Jones said. "I had to depart from him at that time."
At the debate, Bera said Jones should have come out against Trump sooner, citing the presidential nominee's previous controversial comments about women and a Gold Star military family.
Polls indicate Republicans will stay in control of the House in November. But Trump's diminishing popularity in recent weeks has given Democrats an opportunity to erode the GOP's majority, drawing increased interest to races in swing districts like California's 7th.
Outside groups have spent nearly $4 million to influence the race, most of which has gone to opposition campaigns, according to data from the California Target Book. During the debate, Jones sought to draw a contrast between his campaign and Bera's by pointing out that the negative ads against Bera were produced by outside groups, not his campaign. The Bera campaign has run a television ad blasting Jones over the sexual harassment allegations.
Jones garnered attention in 2014 when he posted a YouTube video urging the president to reform the U.S. immigration system. The video was prompted by the killings of two Northern California policemen who were shot by an immigrant who was in the U.S. illegally. In the eight-minute clip, Jones criticized amnesty policies and a lack of action by the president to address problems with the immigration system.
Although he has staked his political reputation on his immigration stances, Jones has sought to distance himself from Trump.
He said at the debate that although he thinks the country needs to secure its border, that "does not mean a 2000-mile wall," referencing Trump's frequent pledge to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Bera said he favors a comprehensive immigration reform plan.
The candidates have also clashed over climate change. Although both candidates said they support policies to combat climate change, at the debate only Bera said he was convinced climate change was caused by humans.
"There is a body of evidence supporting it either way," Jones said at a press conference after the debate. "I don't know what to believe, I truly don't."
Bera and Jones have also pointed to their opposing stances on gun control. Bera wants to ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns, but Jones says the list shouldn't be used because it has errors and is overseen by a political appointee. They also differ on the California death penalty: Bera said he would likely vote to end it, and Jones said it should remain in place.
But like much of the discussion surrounding the race, the Tuesday debate kept circling back to questions about each candidate's integrity.
"You're choosing who's going to be your next representative," Bera said at the conference. "It's about character."
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