SACRAMENTO — An $11-million campaign donation that was secretly routed through an obscure Arizona group might have hurt the conservative effort in California on election day more than it helped, Republican operatives say.
The money went to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hikes, Proposition 30, and push a ballot measure to curb unions' political fundraising, Proposition 32. Voters approved the governor's tax plan and rejected the proposal to reduce labor's influence in California politics.
Some people behind the conservative campaigns now have second thoughts about the money's effect.
"At the end of the day, it was a significant distraction that took us off our campaign message," said Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for the Small Business Action Committee, which received the controversial $11 million.
Brown attacked the donation during many of his stump speeches, accusing "shadowy forces" of trying to undermine California's schools. If his tax plan failed, nearly $6 billion would have been cut from the budget, mostly from public schools.
Members of Brown's campaign team said the donation was something of a political gift. "They gave us the issue while hitting us in the nose," said Sean Clegg, a campaign advisor.
The furor over the money became one of the most closely watched sideshows in the final days before the Nov. 6 election.
State authorities sued the Arizona group, Americans for Responsible Leadership. The nonprofit group eventually named its contributors, but the mystery only deepened — the contributors were identified only as other nonprofits, which keep their donors secret.
Aaron McLear, a Republican strategist who worked against the tax plan, said Brown was successful in turning the controversy into a campaign issue.
"He was able to create a bigger boogeyman than Sacramento politicians, which is hard to do," he said.
Despite the $11-million cash infusion, conservatives still didn't have the money to match the Democrats and labor unions. Brown's campaign outspent its opponents, and unions flooded the airwaves to help sink Proposition 32.
Americans for Responsible Leadership did not admit any wrongdoing when it disclosed its contributors as other nonprofits. One of them, also located in Arizona, has been tied to Charles and David Koch, billionaire energy executives and Republican donors.
California officials are pushing forward with an investigation into who gave the money and are considering civil and criminal penalties for what they called "campaign money laundering."
"It ain't over," state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in a recent speech. "It wasn't over on election day and we're going to keep pushing it through."
Times staff writer Ken Bensinger contributed to this report.