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For candidates, a new California gold rush

Need donors? This is the state, even for races in Ohio or Montana.

February 27, 2007|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

A UCLA linebacker shells out $11,100 to help a Republican senator in Pennsylvania.

A businessman from the small Northern California town of Eureka spends $515,000 to defeat a powerful Democrat in South Dakota.

A Silicon Valley couple funnels cash to elect Democratic secretaries of state in swing states like Ohio who will oversee voting in the coming presidential election.

Those tidbits from campaign finance reports demonstrate why California lately feels like Iowa or New Hampshire next winter. For politicians, including presidential candidates, it's where the money is.

Last week alone, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware made the trek. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was also here, following his rival, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had been here the week before. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another Republican contender, will be here next month.

"It is the place you go to get political money," said Sheila Krumholz, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

Californians spent at least $502 million on federal campaigns in the last four years, federal campaign records show -- 24% more than runner-up New York and about 13 % of all federal campaign funds raised nationally.

At The Times' request, the center compiled a list of California's top 100 donors to federal campaigns. The Times interviewed contributors and reviewed Federal Election Commission documents and other records.

The donors gave during the 2003-2004 election cycle, which included the latest presidential campaign, and the 2005-2006 races for the U.S. House and Senate.

Donors' motives vary. They might be trying to gain an edge in business, or access to powerful officials. Some win perquisites, such as ambassadorships. Many are ideologues whose passions run high on the war or healthcare or taxes.

Federal law restricts donors from giving more than $4,600 directly to a single candidate in a year. But many give far larger sums to independent campaign committees. Others leverage their money by organizing fundraising events.

In the past four years, Deborah Rappaport and her husband, venture capitalist Andrew Rappaport, of Woodside, have spent $5.2 million on federal politics, much of it to encourage young people to vote. They held a fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina this month, raising more than $100,000.

"The stakes are huge," Deborah Rappaport said, describing herself as "an old lefty."

In one of the more unusual uses of campaign money, Silicon Valley Democrats Michael and Frances Kieschnick helped fund a successful campaign in 2006 to elect Democrats as secretaries of state who will oversee balloting in five swing states -- a reaction to what some perceived as bias by Republican officials in Florida and Ohio in the 2000 and 2004 presidential vote counting.

Los Angeles-area developer Rick Caruso has a goal of raising $1 million for Romney's bid for the Republican nomination.

"I'm on a big Republican list," said Caruso, who has given $315,000 since 2003 to federal campaigns. "Politicians ... never lose your number."

Californians had a significant role in the 2006 fight for control of Congress, donating $6.6 million directly to candidates in the six U.S. Senate races that tipped control to Democrats, campaign records show.

In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester ousted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by 3,600 votes, aided in part by Richard and Marilyn Mazess of Montecito. They gave $50,000 to the independent group Campaign Money Watch, which aired a commercial ridiculing Burns for his ties to "big oil."

Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg and other Californians donated a total of $500,000 directly to Tester. Burns collected $460,000 from such Californians as Los Angeles venture capitalist Elliott Broidy and Edward Atsinger III, of Camarillo, chief executive of Christian radio network Salem Broadcasting.

"The money -- the California and New York money -- was very important to Tester," said political scientist Craig Wilson of Montana State University, Billings.

In addition to familiar California sources of political money -- defense, energy and aerospace companies, developers, unions, Hollywood and Silicon Valley -- the top donors include numerous lawyers, heirs and heiresses, and little-known financial, agricultural and other players scattered around the state.

(Among the big-name donors who don't make the latest list: Hollywood mogul David Geffen and investor Ronald Burkle.)

California is widely seen as a bastion of Democrats. But its greenbacks often are shaded Republican red.

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