SACRAMENTO — Congressional elections have traditionally been pretty easy on Rep. Dennis Cardoza, the four-term Merced Democrat whose job se- curity was never more appar- ent than when he sailed through the 2008 election season unopposed.
But Cardoza and a handful of his California colleagues may soon be longing for the good old days as they face tough battles to retain their seats.
A struggling economy, rising number of registered independents and hostile attitude toward incumbents have combined to put at least seven races in play leading up to November. It's an unusual political landscape for California, where heavily gerrymandered districts typically provide safety for incumbents and primary winners of the dominant party.
"Our message to our incumbents all along has been that it may be a very challenging election cycle, so prepare early," said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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The GOP believes the dismal economy may provide an opening for a rightward shift, said Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, head of California's Republican Congressional Delegation.
"The economy fares poorly for the party in power, as long as voters see the country's leadership as part of the problem," he said.
Economic concerns will likely dominate the race in Cardoza's 18th District in the northern San Joaquin Valley — an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
"This is ground zero for the recession," said Cardoza's opponent, Mike Berryhill, a former director of the Turlock Irrigation District. "You have people who five years ago were extremely wealthy and have absolutely nothing now."
Berryhill, of Ceres, said his familiarity with water would make him a powerful advocate for the agriculture-heavy district, where pumping restrictions have cost thousands of jobs and forced farmers to leave large tracts of land fallow.
Cardoza campaign spokesman Mike Lynch said the congressman's own advocacy for his constituents will hold up against any challenges.
Similar issues permeate the rest of the Central Valley, including District 20, home to three-term Democratic Rep. Jim Costa.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 17 points there, but if anti-incumbent fever runs high enough, Hanford cherry farmer and political novice Andy Vidak could give Costa his first real re-election fight.
While closely monitoring Berryhill and Vidak, the National Republican Congressional Committee has focused primarily on two other California challengers: David Harmer, who is taking on Rep. Jerry McNerney, and Van Tran, who faces Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The NRCC has tapped both men for its Young Guns candidate recruitment and training program.
By backing Tran, a Vietnamese-American and former state assemblyman, the GOP hopes to appeal to the 47th District's large Asian population.
However, Tran will have to woo the Orange County district's independent voters in order to overcome the 15-point Democratic registration advantage.
Unlike his fellow incumbents, McNerney is used to fighting for his seat. The two-term congressman's 11th District stretches from the left-leaning eastern suburbs of the Bay Area to the more conservative San Joaquin Valley, and is almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters.
This time around, the threat comes from Harmer, an attorney and former fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
McNerney's camp said his reputation as a moderate and his near-weekly visits to the district will shield him from anti-establishment ire.