Special interests pour record $24M into California lawmakers’ races

In this April 19 photo, "I've Voted" stickers are seen at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this April 19 photo, "I've Voted" stickers are seen at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO — Special interest groups have poured a record $24 million so far into California legislative races ahead of Tuesday’s primary election as real estate agents, dentists, businesses, charter schools and others seek to influence the makeup of the Legislature.

California Republicans are often on the margins in a state dominated by Democrats. With that being the case, some traditional GOP donors are now throwing their money behind business-friendly Democrats.

Instead of giving directly to candidates, groups representing oil companies, education interests, developers, and businesses are increasingly likely to make independent expenditures that leave politicians with little control over campaigns that promote or tar candidates with mailers and other advertising.

“Outside groups have figured out there’s a lot of return on investment,” said Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. “Business-friendly Democrats suddenly have a big advantage in getting outside interests to benefit their campaigns.”

Traditional Democratic allies like labor unions, consumer attorneys and environmental advocates are now dumping in their own money to counter the conservative swing.

The more than $24 million in outside spending by at least 79 independent committees shattered the old record a week before Tuesday’s balloting, according to the California Target Book, which tracks legislative races. It said independent expenditures have eclipsed the less than $17 million spent in primary legislative campaigns two years ago and are nearing the roughly $30 million that was spent in the 2014 general election.

The trend is accelerating.

Six years ago, just one legislative primary race had more than $1 million in outside spending, and four races had over $500,000.

This year, independent spending exceeds $1 million in eight races and tops $500,000 in 15 contests.

More than $2 million, much of it pitting energy companies against environmental groups, is flowing into San Bernardino County’s 47th Assembly District. There, union-backed attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes is trying to unseat incumbent Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who is supported by a campaign committee financed by oil companies.

A similar dynamic is playing out in the 15th Senate District in the south San Francisco Bay Area as Sen. Jim Beall fights a same-party challenge from San Jose Democratic Assemblywoman Nora Campos.

Beall backed a 2015 proposal to cut petroleum use in California by half within 15 years; Brown is among moderate Democrats who blocked the gas cuts. Billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer spent about $500,000 on independent ads supporting Beall to help counter the oil money backing Brown and Campos.

“This is sort of a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party,” said Reyes’ campaign manager, Leo Briones.

“I think these expenditures by special interests are a huge reason why voters have so much disdain for the political process,” Campos said in a statement.

In the largely rural, Democratic-leaning 3rd Senate District between Sacramento and San Francisco, special interest groups have spent more than $2.25 million trying to set up the November contest to succeed termed-out Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

Most of the money has gone to help Assemblyman Bill Dodd of Napa, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has had outside support from EdVoice, which backs education reforms, and business-backed Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. He is likely to face Democratic Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada of Davis.

Political analyst Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said several developments appear to be driving the increase in independent spending: more competitive legislative districts drawn by an independent commission and the voter-approved top two primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of party.

Term limits periodically open up legislative seats and create competitive races without incumbents.

“Those reforms have made races more competitive and another way of saying competitive in politics is ‘expensive,'” she said.

The outside spending can leave candidates and their campaigns reeling. They are not allowed to coordinate with independent expenditure committees.

“All I know is what everyone else knows when it arrives in their mailboxes,” said Concord City Council member Tim Grayson, another former Republican who is running as a Democrat for the open 14th Assembly district seat in the San Francisco Bay Area.

More than $1.97 million has been spent by special interest groups in that race.

$24 millionCaliforniaCalifornia legislative racesCalifornia Presidential PrimaryDemocratsRepublicansSpecial interest groups

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