GOP puts millions toward independent spending in legislative races

Democrats say GOP's use of independent expenditures gets around state campaign finance limits

The Californian Republican Party has spent millions this election on independent spending campaigns in pivotal legislative races, a tactic that enabled the GOP to expand its influence this election.

But Democrats are crying foul, arguing the reliance on independent expenditures lets Republicans subvert state campaign finance law.

Since Oct. 6, the GOP has spent nearly $2.1 million on independent expenditures in two state Senate races and five Assembly contests. The spending includes bolstering incumbent Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) over Democratic challenger Luis Chavez, and targeting Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) in his reelection bid over Republican Jack Mobley Jr.

The party funded an independent spending campaign before in Vidak's original run for office in a 2013 special election. But otherwise, the state GOP has not run any independent expenditures for legislative candidates since at least 1999, the earliest date searchable on online filings with the secretary of state.

Kaitlyn MacGregor, a party spokeswoman, said the uptick in independent spending is one way the party is "seeing how we can best and most effectively help out our candidates." 

A 2000 voter-approved ballot measure allows political parties to collect unlimited donations, but only $34,000 per individual contributor can go toward supporting candidates, such as direct contributions to a candidate's campaign. The rest of the money collected by parties can go toward overhead costs, voter registration -- or independent expenditures.

By law, independent expenditures cannot be coordinated with a candidate. Democrats say it is unlikely the GOP can provide independent support for candidates the party also backs with direct funding. The Democrats have submitted two complaints to the state ethics agency alleging the spending has been done in coordination with candidates' campaigns. A spokesman for the agency said the complaints are under review.

Democrats also argue that by using independent expenditure campaigns, Republicans can take money from particularly generous donors and use it to support a GOP candidate without restrictions. They point to GOP mega-donor Charles T. Munger Jr., who has given more than $5 million to Republican Party committees this year.

"They get to use one guy's millions of dollars, when [Democrats] are playing by the rules," said Lance Olson, an attorney for the Senate and Assembly Democrats, adding the Republicans' use of independent expenditures in legislative races was "really unprecedented."

Democrats have not run independent expenditures in legislative races this year; the party has done around $300,000 in independent spending to back Tom Torlakson in his reelection bid for superintendent of public instruction, against a fellow Democrat, Marshall Tuck.

The GOP's MacGregor dismissed Democrats' coordination complaints, saying the party has "done everything by the book. We're absolutely 100% committed to making sure that we’re following the rules." She also noted that Democrats, like Republicans, also have major donors, including the California Teachers Assn., which has given the party more than $1 million this year.

Munger, who attended an event for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Neel Kashkari on Saturday, declined to answer questions about his independent expenditures before Tuesday's election. He also brushed off concerns that big donors like himself have an outsized effect on campaigns and use independent expenditures to avoid contribution limits. 

Campaign finance laws, he said, are intended to prevent corruption, and a much bigger problem is big spending from special interests like unions. 

"I don't have an agenda I need to move in front of the Legislature," said Munger, who also is the primary funder of Spirit of Democracy, an outside group that has spent nearly $4 million in legislative races since September.

On the federal level, national parties have long been able to run independent expenditures, said Rick Hasen, a professor of election law at UC Irvine. He said it's no surprise state parties are also going down that route "especially because we’re seeing a lot of independent spending by outside groups."

"It might be that there’s now more of a demand -- given what these outside groups are doing -- for the parties to try to grab some of that money for themselves," he said.

In some cases, parties' independent expenditures have raised coordination complaints, like those submitted by the California Democrats, he said.

But, he added, "unless you have a smoking gun...it's very hard to prove [coordination]."

 Staff writer Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this story.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
77°