Independent spending in California’s statewide, legislative races the highest in years

Outside spending by dentists, unions, oil companies and other groups in California statewide and legislative races on Tuesday’s ballot has reached nearly $23 million, by far the most reported independent spending leading up to a June primary in almost a decade.

As of midday Saturday, about 80 committees reported spending in more than 50 contests for statewide office and the Legislature. Six legislative races had attracted more than $1 million in outside spending, including the Sacramento-area race to succeed termed-out Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Those involved in the spending surge said a variety of factors have contributed to the increase. More legislative districts than usual have no incumbent on the ballot, making races more competitive. Almost two dozen contested seats are open in the Assembly and nine in the Senate.

Donors also are considering the prospect that many legislative winners in November will be eligible to serve up to 12 years now that term limits have been altered.

“The interest groups are seeing now that these are seats that are going to be in one person’s hands for a long time. They would like to have a person they like,” said political consultant Marty Wilson, who is advising the business-backed JobsPAC independent expenditure committee, which had spent more than $1.1 million in eight contests by Saturday.

Such spending has been a fixture of California races since 2001, following voters’ approval of contribution limits for candidates. The independent groups can accept unlimited amounts from deep-pocketed donors but cannot legally coordinate with the campaigns of candidates they support.

This year’s totals are approaching the nearly $29 million spent in spring 2006, when an independent expenditure committee bankrolled by Sacramento developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, the California Teachers Association and others spent almost $10 million to help clinch the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination for then-Treasurer Phil Angelides.

Independent spending this spring has swamped spending by candidates’ own campaigns in several contests around the state. In the race for superintendent of public instruction, outside groups supporting or opposing incumbent Tom Torlakson or his main challenger, Marshall Tuck, have spent $4.2 million. Tuck and Torlakson’s campaigns had spent less than $1.8 million combined this year through mid-May.

In the East Bay’s 16th Assembly District, independent expenditures exceeded $3.9 million as of Saturday, as more than eight committees poured in money supporting or opposing Democrats Steve Glazer and Tim Sbranti and Republican Catharine Baker. The three candidates’ combined spending this year totaled about $800,000 as of mid-May.

In the Sacramento region, a pair of legislative contests rank among the top 10 in outside spending. In the race to succeed Steinberg in the 6th Senate District, groups have spent more than $1 million to support or oppose Assembly members Richard Pan or Roger Dickinson. And in the Davis-to-Napa 4th Assembly District, independent spending tops $1.2 million in the five-way contest.

“We do lose control; there’s no doubt about it,” said Republican political consultant Matt Rexroad, who is advising former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, one of the candidates in an increasingly freewheeling intra-Republican brawl in Riverside County’s 28th Senate District. Independent groups have put about $1 million into the race.

Even when outside groups support a candidate, their mailers or radio ads can contradict that candidate’s own message, he said. “The law-and-order candidate becomes the biotech candidate,” Rexroad joked.

The independent spending in the 16th has buried district voters in mail and angry ads from independent groups and the candidates’ campaigns, sometimes on the same topics and arriving on the same day.

“You have this difficulty of not knowing until you see it in the mailbox,” said Glazer, saying some messages on his behalf come as a surprise to him.

Recent voter-approved changes to California elections explain some of the increase in outside spending, consultants say. Approved by voters in 2010, the debut of the top-two primary system two years ago confounded many candidates and consultants. The math continues to confuse.

“I think people are trying to figure out where to put their money, because no one knows how to play this top-two game,” said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, who is working with Californians for Economic Prosperity, a union-funded independent expenditure committee supporting Sbranti and opposing Glazer.

Finishing second in the primary is as good as finishing first, and independent spending now is about getting a preferred candidate into one of the top spots or squeezing an undesired one into third place.

“That’s the battle right now – can you get the general election the way you want it to be?” said Democratic political consultant Matthew Reilly, who is advising candidates in a trio of Assembly races where independent spending groups are active.

Instead of just talking to Democratic or Republican voters in partisan primaries, campaigns have to reach out to everyone. In districts likely to elect a Democrat in November, for example, outside committees bankrolled by business groups are supporting Democratic candidates running against Democrats supported by unions, trial lawyers and other organizations. Republican candidates struggle for attention. It’s the reverse in some Republican-leaning districts.

In 2012, voters approved changes to the state’s term-limits law. Instead of lawmakers being limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, people now can serve up to a dozen years in either house.

“Strategically, you’re much better off if you get the right person elected the first time,” Wilson said.

The voter-approved changes, added Democratic consultant Michael Wagaman, “have amplified and intensified these fights and brought more money into the system.”

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