Super PACs Pour On the California Cash in National Battle For House

By Tara Siler

(Brendan Smialowski/AFT/Getty Images)

(Brendan Smialowski/AFT/Getty Images)

The recent redrawing of California’s congressional districts would seem to favor Democratic candidates in this deep-blue state.

But there are still 11 competitive House seats across California, and there’s a dogfight under way for every one of them, in large part because Democrats need 25 House seats to take control of Congress from Republicans. So national political groups on both sides are dumping buckets of campaign cash into races here in hopes of maximizing gains — or limiting their losses.

One of the more hotly contested races is in the Sacramento area’s 7th Congressional District. In fact, it’s considered one of the most competitive in the country

Volunteer Judy Vonn is working the phones for Democratic candidate and physician Ami Bera, who is challenging GOP incumbent Dan Lungren for a second time.

“I think he has a good chance. The polls are showing him neck-in-neck now,” Vonn says. “He ran in the last election and lost, but there’s been some redistricting and he has a much better chance this time.”

The Democratic and Republican Congressional Committees are together spending at least $11 million on television ads in Sacramento’s media market alone.

The closer the race, the more expensive it gets; in fact, it’s looking to be the most expensive race in the state.

“The Super PACs are going to play on both sides in this election,” says Ami Bera. “I think they’re going to end up neutralizing each other, and I think this election is going to come down to a battle of ideas.”

Bera’s view may seem optimistic to some. He lost to Dan Lungren in 2010 after a massive last-minute ad buy from GOP operative Karl Rove’s Super PAC, American Crossroads.

Bera’s campaign manager Josh Wolf warns of the media onslaught by outside money, but says the campaign is ready. “We have the luxury of foresight this time.”

Wolf says the campaign has worked hard to get Bera and his message out early — before the television blitz. But, as it turns out, many outside groups are spending for Bera this time.

A Democratic Super PAC joined with the Service Employees International Union in shelling out nearly $500,000 for an attack ad. In the ad, the voiceover says, “Dan Lungren got $3 million in campaign cash from Wall Street and special interests, and made a half-million a year as a corporate lobbyist.”

Then, Bera got hit by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which said, “A doctor should know better, but Ami Bera is a politician now.”

Outside groups have so far spent more than $4 million on the race — that’s on top of what the candidates are spending on their own.

The Democratic and Republican Congressional Committees are together spending at least $11 million on television ads in Sacramento’s media market alone.

Millions more are flowing to other parts of the state, as well. Daniel Scarpinato with the National Republican Congressional Committee points out, “That’s more than has ever been spent by Republicans, or probably Democrats included, in California — ever.”

Outside spending can have a big impact on a House race, because Congressional races are relatively inexpensive compared with a statewide or national campaign.

There’s “a lot of bang for your buck,” according to Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. “It’s also often the case that when you go on the attack you’re liable to exaggerate or sometimes say something outright false,” she adds.

Case in point: a cartoonish ad portraying Jose Hernandez, the Democratic challenger in the 10th Congressional District that encompasses Modesto. In the ad, it might sound like Hernandez is a voting member of Congress — but he’s not.

The voiceover says, “Jose supported the stimulus with bonuses for AIG and thinks the new healthcare law is good medicine … This November say ‘no’ to Jose.”

American Action Network — a conservative nonprofit group in Washington, DC — sponsored the ad. Hernandez, a former astronaut, is challenging Republican incumbent Jeff Denham in what is shaping up to be another money-filled race.

Meanwhile, there’s a tight contest just next door in the redrawn 9th Congressional District that includes Stockton. Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney is trying to hold off a challenge from 25-year-old GOP newcomer Ricky Gill, who is benefiting from a good deal of outside cash.

“It has emerged as one of the more competitive races — not only in the state, but in the country — which is not something the Democrats had planned for,” Scarpinato says, adding that Democrats and their allies may have to spend money they hadn’t planned on to bolster McNerney.

Up the road, in the 3rd District, stretching from Rio Vista in the south to Willows and Orland in the north, there’s a fourth closely-watched contest, and this one is also keeping Democrats on their toes. But so far there’s not much outside spending against Democratic incumbent John Garamendi or Republican Kim Vann.

But Novak says that could soon change. “There are some groups that are holding onto their money,” she says. “In the coming weeks if you’re not being inundated already by these ads — look out.”

And voter beware — because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know who is behind all the advertising. Daniel Newman, president of Maplight.org, which analyses money in politics, says  while there are many people representing the ideas of large donors, no one is representing the voters’ ideas.

“The whole livelihood of our state and our country is on the line with each election, and so a few million dollars … is trivial compared to what that can buy.”

And what can it buy? Says Newman: a lot of influence over policies and laws that ultimately benefit big donors who may have little, if anything, to do with these California districts, or the needs of the people living there.