As federal super PACs continue to pour money into the presidential and congressional contests, state-level independent committees are spending big to influence the outcome in California's legislative races.
Independent expenditure committees, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts, are active in more than a third of state races on the June 5 ballot, spending more than $7 million to support and oppose candidates.
The spending, which will grow as groups ramp up mail pieces, radio and television ads and in-person appeals by paid staff in the final days of the primary campaign, is expected to easily exceed the more than $7.4 million in independent spending the Fair Political Practices Commission tracked in the 2010 legislative primary contests.
While a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door to unlimited special-interest spending in federal races in 2010, the use of independent committees became the norm in California state elections a decade earlier.
Observers say the number of competitive races this year, a product of redistricting, a new primary process and turnover in the Legislature, is driving numbers up.
"You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an independent expenditure right now," Democratic campaign consultant Andrew Acosta said.
The top-two primary, which puts candidates of all party affiliations on the same ballot and allows only the top two vote-getters to advance to November, has also blurred traditional battle lines. Business groups are backing moderate Democrats, labor unions are picking sides in Republican battles, and some political insiders are using their cash to try to oust incumbents.
Proponents of the top-two primary, which was adopted by voters in 2010, said the system would lessen political party influence and help more moderate candidates win. Supporters of the change are trying to make those promises a reality.
The California Chamber of Commerce, which is backing the more moderate Democrat in several Assembly races, has tapped Gov. Jerry Brown adviser Steve Glazer and Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who worked on Meg Whitman's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, to help run its committee.
"I think there's this interest in electing people in both parties that are more interested in governance than being obstructionists or not thinking through the consequences of some of their positions," Stutzman said.
David Crane, a Democrat who advised GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed up with investor Ron Conway and Wal-Mart board of directors member Greg Penner, both of whom are registered as having no party preference, to create a committee that plans to back candidates who display "courage," regardless of their political leanings.
Stanford physicist and major GOP donor Charles Munger Jr., another top-two primary supporter, has spent more than $500,000 to boost the more moderate Republican rival to Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa.
Even labor unions, traditional Democratic allies, are active across the aisle. SEIU California and the California Professional Firefighters are spending to elect a Republican running against Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, one of the most conservative members, in a heavily GOP district.
Major spending can also be a sign of a proxy war on a specific policy or issue.
That's the case in the Southern California's 46th Assembly District, which is shaping up as the primary's most expensive contest. Charter school advocates spent more than $1 million to support charter school executive Brian Johnson, a Democrat, in the six-way race for the open seat. StudentsFirst, the Sacramento education advocacy group headed by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, chipped in more than $400,000 this week to run television ads on his behalf.
The California Teachers Association has already spent more than $130,000 on mailers, robocalls and online ads to counter those efforts.
The aims of independent committees aren't always easy to discern.
In Riverside County's 31st Senate District, one mail piece arriving in voters' homes blasts Democratic candidate Richard Roth as a "corporate defender" who chose big banks and big businesses over "union workers." The pamphlet, posted online by the Press-Enterprise newspaper, criticizes the attorney and retired Air Force general for supporting a spending cap that it says could have led to education cuts and teacher layoffs.
The multi-page piece, which endorses Democratic rival Steve Clute, didn't come from teachers or labor unions. It was produced by a group called California Senior Advocates League PAC, which received major funding from business and insurance groups that are considered more likely to back Republican Jeff Miller, an assemblyman from Corona, in the swing seat come November.
Critics say the true motive of the mail piece is to keep Roth, Senate Democrats' pick for the seat, out of the runoff.
"Make no mistake, these are Jeff Miller's big business, big insurance cronies trying to game the system and trick Democrats into electing the weaker opponent," said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for the political arm of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Dennis DeSnoo, who is advising the committee in that race, called Kinney's suggestion "a lot of hooey." The former California Democratic Party official said the committee backers are supporting Clute because they believe he is the best candidate.
Some good-government groups complain that the feel-good committee names and frequent money transfers give cover to groups trying to influence the races. Active committees this election include "Vote Matters," "Residents for Good Government" and "Spirit of Democracy."
"A lot of times, the funding is obscured through independent expenditure or (political action) committees two or three layers down before you actually get to the source who is funding it," said California Common Cause's Phillip Ung.
Spending by independent expenditure committees has skyrocketed since voter-approved contribution limits for candidate-controlled committees took effect in 2001.
While the independent committees cannot be coordinated with the campaigns, some observers say the influence they wield is problematic. The possibility of independent committee support or threat of an opposition campaign could weigh heavily on the minds of legislators once they get to the Capitol.
"I think this kind of idea of independence doesn't play out in reality," said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson.