America Shining recently started spending money — more than $610,000… (www.chenforcongress.com )
Democratic congressional candidate Jay Chen couldn't begin to match the nearly $2.5 million raised by longtime Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), whom Chen is challenging for what is widely regarded as a safe GOP seat.
But a little-known group called America Shining recently started spending money — more than $610,000 so far — to oppose Royce and help Chen, drawing attention to the race in ways the Chen campaign couldn't afford. The outlay by the 3-month-old America Shining, whose only donor is Chen's brother Shaw, is a fraction of the nearly $42 million in independent spending poured into unusually competitive California congressional races this year.
More than half that amount has gone to just three of the state's 53 districts.
In some cases, such as Chen's, the independent spending has nearly matched or exceeded what the candidates have raised. The growth of such spending was largely enabled by federal court decisions that eased restrictions on unlimited donations for or against candidates — as long as the giving is not coordinated with the campaigns. The new rules have changed the political landscape across the nation.
The influence of independent spending is especially strong in California, experts say. The nation's biggest congressional delegation has 10 competitive races this year that will figure strongly in the parties' battle for control of the House, in part because of new political maps that resulted in fewer sure bets for either party.
"We've got an arms race going on, and clearly there is a lot at stake," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. She added that her organization is especially concerned about aspects of the rules that in some cases allow the identity of contributors to remain hidden.
The Sacramento-area battle between Republican Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) and Democrat Ami Bera is among the House races that have drawn the most outside money: more than $7.3 million. Two other California contests have each attracted more than $6.9 million in external spending.
A chunk of the money has come from the political parties. But in the Inland Empire, the National Assn. of Realtors' political arm has made its biggest investment — more than $2.1.million to support Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) over fellow Republican Bob Dutton.
"You need to spend money to have your voice heard," said Scott Reiter, managing director of the Realtor PAC.
Groups affiliated with GOP operative Karl Rove, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, environmental groups and labor unions also are active in California this year.
"It seems clear from the trends over the last month or so that outside groups have realized that $1 million may have more punch spent in a House or Senate race than on the presidential level," said Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine professor who specializes in elections law. "Dropping that much money can really give a candidate who's behind a fighting chance.''
Records show the vast majority of the spending fights rather than supports candidates, adding to the heap of negative ads popping up in tough matchups. Among those is a race in San Diego County, where port official Scott Peters, a Democrat, is challenging Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad).
Independent spending in that contest has surpassed $7.1 million, almost half to undermine Peters and slightly less to oppose Bilbray.
"It definitely makes the tone far more negative," said MaryAnne Pintar, spokeswoman for the Peters campaign. "And it causes a great deal of skepticism on the part of the voters, because they don't know what to believe."
And the prohibition against outside spenders coordinating with candidates' campaigns concerns many strategists, who say groups wanting to be helpful can actually hurt their favored candidates with conflicting messages or ads so negative against opponents that they turn off voters.
"It's pretty hard for a candidate to break through all that negative messaging," said Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant in Sacramento. Suddenly "everybody is a scoundrel."
"The candidates aren't responsible for their own campaigns anymore," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who is running the campaign of Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) against Republican challenger Abel Maldonado in Santa Barbara County, where independent spending is exceeding $2.5 million. "It's all this three-dimensional chess that's going on, with all these outside groups."
Some consultants have an additional worry: that campaigns may be illegally consorting with outside groups. Complaints alleging collusion have been filed with the Federal Election Commission in at least three California races, including Chen's in a district that spans parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.
Gilliard, who is overseeing Royce's reelection campaign, said it strains credulity to think the Chen brothers are not collaborating.
"They claim they don't talk to each other and coordinate things," Gilliard said. "But we don't find that believable. "
Jay Chen's campaign manager, Sam Liu, said the campaign is not coordinating with Shaw Chen. "There has been no coordination whatsoever," Liu said, citing an America Shining ad that parodies 1950s horror films in hitting at Royce. "It's certainly not like anything we would have produced ourselves."
Merl reported from Los Angeles and Simon from Washington.