LOS ANGELES (AP) -- California's longest-serving congressman was one of two veteran Democrats unseated in House races reshaped by independent redistricting and the state's reinvented primary.
Rep. Pete Stark lost his San Francisco Bay area seat to an upstart fellow Democrat nearly 50 years his junior, as other incumbents clung to their seats Wednesday morning in heated races spanning from San Diego to the Central Valley.
Stark, 80, was beaten after a bitter campaign that pitted him against 31-year-old Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell, who ran on a promise that he would bring fresh energy and jobs to the suburban district.
Swalwell, a local prosecutor, ran an aggressive ground game and profited from early endorsements from party loyalists who swore off their allegiance to Stark after hearing too much of the elder congressman's trademark invective. Stark publicly called Swalwell a liar, while his challenger relentlessly attacked the lawmaker over his age.
“It's very thrilling,” Swalwell said in an interview early Wednesday. “It still rings true that if you ignored your district and someone else shows up who wants to serve the people, the voters will react positively.”
Stark faced the political fight of his life this year thanks to a new primary system that sends only the top two vote-getters to the November ballot.
Farther south in the San Fernando Valley, Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman beat 30-year Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, netting the single seat in the area left after an independent redistricting panel redrew the district's boundaries.
Their battle was one of the nastiest this season, and even got physical when Sherman roughly grabbed the smaller, older Berman by the shoulder during a debate, pulled him toward his chest and hollered, “You want to get into this?”
The state's congressional races drew intense interest from national Democrats and Republicans alike this year, after California's independent redistricting process transformed them from gerrymandered strongholds to free-for-alls in which once-safe, long-serving lawmakers fought for their political lives.
Numerous House races from San Diego to Sacramento remained hotly contested Wednesday morning as early returns showed political veterans in a handful of districts maintaining a razor-thin edge.
In the rural San Joaquin Valley, freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Denham successfully staved off his Democratic challenger, former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez.
The district, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, attracted more than $8 million from political action committees and other outside groups, making it the nation's seventh-most expensive in terms of outside spending.
Democratic Reps. Jerry McNerney in Stockton and Lois Capps in Santa Barbara kept their seats, defeating well-funded GOP challengers. Early returns showed their GOP colleagues Reps. Brian Bilbray of San Diego and Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs trying to hang on to their seats.
Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, who has held state and federal offices for nearly four decades, defeated Kim Vann, a 37-year-old pro-abortion rights Colusa County supervisor who national Republicans had considered one of their top hopes for picking up a seat.
One exception among the incumbents was Stark, often called the dean of the nation's largest congressional delegation. The 19-term lawmaker had been accustomed to coasting to re-election in the liberal Northern California enclave he had represented since the end of the Vietnam War.
But his district's boundaries morphed to include moderate suburbs where Swalwell's pledge for change and bipartisan cooperation played well with voters.
Stark conceded the race Wednesday morning in a statement congratulating Swalwell on his victory.
“I went to Washington by running against an unpopular war and for women's rights, opportunity for children and dignity for seniors,” he said. “I leave knowing that the landscape has changed, but the needs of my constituents remain.”
The state's delegation has been composed of 33 Democrats and 19 Republicans, with the seat of former Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza up for grabs next year after he resigned in August when the fall ballot was already set.
The desert communities near Palm Springs became one of the hottest battlegrounds, where Bono Mack sought to fend off Harvard-educated physician Raul Ruiz, an effective Democratic fundraiser adept at mobilizing the district's growing swath of Hispanic voters. Returns early Wednesday showed Ruiz held a thin lead.
Democrat Mark Takano of Riverside, a high school teacher and former trustee of the Riverside Community College District, won a nearby seat in the newly redrawn 41st District, once a GOP stronghold held by Rep. Jerry Lewis. Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley took another seat along the Ventura County coastline that had been held by Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly, who retired.
San Diego's 52nd district, where Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray is trying to fend off Democratic challenger Scott Peters, remained a tossup early Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, outside groups had spent nearly $8.3 million on the race, making it the nation's sixth-most expensive in terms of outside spending. By comparison, the campaigns together had spent $4.1 million through Sept. 30, the most recent figures available.
All told, super PACs and other outside groups flooded California's House races with more money than any other state under new rules allowing unrestricted outside political spending . By Tuesday, spending had reached nearly $54 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.