Hoping to reshape the Democratic coalition governing the California Legislature, business-backed outside groups spent millions during the 2014 election cycle to elect Democrats they believe will be more sympathetic to their interests.
Newly elected Democratic candidates aided by business-funded groups posted an impressive record. In seven out of 10 races to fill open seats, the Democratic candidate who benefited from independent spending by business groups prevailed.
Those results have prompted talk of a new generation of business-friendly Democrats assuming office. Some groups that spent lavishly on behalf of those Democrats are touting their success.
Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, for example, spent $1.1 million on the effort, and the group’s leader predicted that “economic Democrat” lawmakers will have considerable clout in the coming session.
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Fifteen years ago, “there were six (such Democrats) in the Assembly,” said David Townsend, who oversees Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. “When they get sworn in for the next session, exactly one-half of the Democratic caucus will be mods.”
Others take issue with Townsend’s use of the term “moderate” to describe those Democrats. Some of the newly elected members support policies such as raising the minimum wage or extending temporary tax increases enacted via Proposition 30. Many also received money from reliable bastions of Democratic support, including unions and environmental groups.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said changes in election rules and legislative term limits are driving “wholehearted change in how the Legislature is structured and comes together.”
Candidates now run in districts redrawn to be less skewed toward one party. In districts that are still predominantly Democratic, the new nonpartisan primary system allows two Democrats to advance to the general election. After two elections under the new rules, outside groups have become more sophisticated in deploying campaign funds.
“The business people finally became aware of how to use the open primary, the top-two process,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst who worked for legislative Republicans. “They have shown there is a way to elect the moderate Democrat in a same-party runoff.”
Quinn recounted receiving a piece of campaign mail in which Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, a prominent Republican, trumpeted Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. He called it an example of groups trying to push Republican and independent voters towards more centrist Democrats.
“For the first time I saw mailers that said, ‘There’s only two Democrats running here, but which one of them is closer to your values?’” Quinn said.
Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist and a spokesman for Assembly Democratic campaign efforts, contends that, while Democrats have embraced policy ideas once relegated to the far left, including same-sex marriage and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, the party as a whole has become more business-friendly “because the economy demands it.” He rejected the idea that new electoral rules have driven the shift.
“The focus of Legislative Democrats in the past few years has been balancing budgets, streamlining regulation when possible while still protecting consumers and the environment,” Maviglio wrote in an email. “Legislative Democrats, along with the Governor, have found the sweet spot between being pro-jobs and protecting what matters to Californians.”
When legislative Democrats disagree, environmental issues and business regulation are often the reason.
A group of 16 Democrats last year, for example, signed a letter urging the state to hold off on requiring oil companies to purchase emissions permits as part of the state’s cap-and-trade scheme, warning about higher gas prices. Other bills that have exposed divisions sought to ban single-use plastic bags, limit hydraulic fracturing and punish large stores whose employees’ wages are low enough to qualify them for public assistance.
“They’re still Democrats, so when it comes to social issues like choice and minimum wage and workers rights, they’re solid,” Townsend said of the Democrats he seeks to promote, but “they want to do things that make our economy strong so people can have real good jobs – they really resist special interests coming in to rig the game, be it lawsuits or environmental interests.”
The campaign spending by industry-funded groups showed those entities favored some Democrats over others. In some cases, they invested heavily in primaries, hoping to push chosen candidates into general elections nearly certain to be won by Democrats given the district. In others, they worked to elevate one Democrat over another in the same-party races that have proliferated in the top-two primary system.
“I think what it does is that it places a premium on being willing to align with business interests,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who lost a caustic and expensive Senate race to Pan.
Yet Democrats who won their elections with ample outside business help – including Dickinson’s opponent, Pan – also received funding and endorsements from traditional Democratic allies such as organized labor. Some of those Democrats still touted their progressive credentials.
Assemblyman-elect Tony Thurmond, who defeated Democrat Elizabeth Echols in an East Bay district amid a shower of corporate money, talked about raising the minimum wage and advocates a ban on hydraulic fracturing and an oil-extraction tax – positions that directly contradict the priorities of oil companies that helped support him. He did, however, emphasize economic tools for combating high poverty and unemployment in his district.
“At the end of the day, I also want to work on things that support job creation,” Thurmond said. “So, while I am a progressive, I could work on things people don’t normally talk about, like tax-credit programs that would benefit those sectors that do prove they provide a lot of jobs.”
Assemblywoman-elect Autumn Burke made a similar point. Business-funded groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost her odds of emerging from a primary in a safe Democratic district in the Los Angeles area. Like Thurmond, Burke supports raising the minimum wage, an idea business groups have fought. She also talked about enticing more manufacturers and businesses into her district.
“I reserve the right to be moderate on some things and progressive on others,” Burke said. “We as a community are more progressive on labor issues, but then business-wise we do have some more moderate views.”
Lawmakers rejected the notion that money could dictate their agendas. Thurmond said that “if I feel a group needs to be held accountable, I’ll hold them accountable.” In a pre-election interview with The Sacramento Bee, Assemblyman-elect Jim Cooper, who benefited from prolific spending by groups funded by oil companies and others, said he was beholden to no one.
“Just because you support what I believe in and what I say doesn’t mean I owe you and there’s a quid pro quo,” Cooper said.
But the fact that some of the big spenders poured money into the campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats makes a clear statement about the priorities of those groups, Dickinson said.
“I think what one can reasonably deduce from that is that these interests don’t particularly care whether someone’s a Republican or a Democrat,” Dickinson said. “What they care about is getting people elected who are going to be sympathetic to their interests.”
Policies that crown the agenda of union-allied Democrats often draw opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, which each year publishes a list of “job killer” bills. Yet in addition to spending heavily to elect Republicans in contested races, the chamber’s JobsPAC expenditure committee waded into primary elections to promote business-friendly Democrats in decidedly liberal districts.
“Democratic primaries are tough, so part of the trick is: Can you get Republican voters to engage in a primary for a Democratic candidate when you’ve got a Republican on the ballot?” said Marty Wilson, vice president of public affairs for the California Chamber of Commerce. “A Republican’s not going to win in a Democratic seat.”
The chamber did not always succeed. Two of the Democratic candidates it backed did not make it out of their primaries. Assemblyman-elect Kansen Chu, a San Jose city councilman, emerged from one of those two races, and attributed JobsPAC’s opposition to his campaign to his support for a higher minimum wage and his skepticism about sweeping pension changes advocated by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed.
“The Chamber of Commerce people always held that against me,” Chu said.
While business interests were not always effective in electing their chosen Democrats, some analysts say this election may have provided a blueprint going forward.
“They went directly to the Republican voters and said, you don’t have a choice but two Democrats – you don’t want to waste your ballot, but one is closer to where you are,” Quinn said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more of that.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.