A secretive group is spending money on mail ads, phone calls and possibly billboards in support of former Democratic Rep. Joe Baca as he tries to make a comeback in a heated Inland Empire congressional race.
Baca says he knows nothing about the organization, Cal Voters for Honest Government.
"I have an angel out there," Baca said. "I don't know who it is."
The group has not reported its activity to the Federal Election Commission, as the law requires. The commission earlier sent the organization a letter saying it needed to disclose its spending.
But its name is on three mailers touting Baca in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Gary Miller (R-Rancho Cucamonga).
Johnny Diaz Jr., who is listed on government documents as treasurer of the Pico Rivera-based Cal Voters, did not return repeated phone calls.
Several billboards urging a vote for Baca have sprung up along major highways throughout the district. Baca, who has lagged well behind his main competitors in fundraising, said the signs are not his.
At least one of the billboards lacks the required disclosure of who is paying for it. A spokesman for the company that owns that billboard said the space was purchased by Golden State Consultants in Santa Fe Springs. The consulting firm did not return repeated phone calls.
The signs' themes — touting military veteran Baca's experience in Congress, where he served six terms before losing a race in a neighboring district in 2012 — mirror some of the messages in the Cal Voters mailers.
The undisclosed spending comes amid indications that the seven-candidate race to succeed Miller is tightening and that California's top-two primary system could once again upend the dynamics of the Democratic-tilting district.
Under the system, all the candidates in a given contest appear on the same ballot and all voters choose among them; only the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the November general election.
Two years ago the district was widely expected to go to a Democrat, with Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar seen as the front-runner among the four of his party on the primary ballot. But the Democrats splintered the vote, allowing two Republicans to compete in the fall and deliver the seat to the GOP.
Soon afterward, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited Aguilar to try again in an ultimately vain attempt to clear the field of same-party competitors.
Last week, the committee released an internal poll to the Capitol news outlet Roll Call that showed Baca gaining on Aguilar and Eloise Gomez Reyes. She is a Colton attorney whose prominent backers include Emily's List and several California House Democrats.
Danny Tillman, an elected school board member in San Bernardino, is the fourth Democrat on the June 3 primary ballot.
Three Republicans are on the ballot, including Lesli Gooch, a former lobbyist and longtime aide to Miller, who has endorsed her; military veteran Paul Chabot, who was leading in the Democrats' poll; and Ryan Downing, a political consultant.
Most observers expect at least one Democrat to win a place on the fall ballot.
"This should be a comfortable district for Democrats," said Brian Janiskee, who heads the political science department at Cal State University San Bernardino.
But he cautioned that several factors could combine to spoil their chances of taking the seat again this year, including a predicted low turnout, which tends to favor Republicans, and what he called "national head winds" of issues and developments that can spill into congressional contests.
UC Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler also said a Democratic shutout is unlikely. None of the three Republicans is as well known as Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton were in 2012, and there were fewer GOP candidates to divide the vote that year.
Still, "a lot has changed" in a race that at one point "looked it was going to be a victory lap for Aguilar," Bowler said.
The mysterious spending for Baca illustrates the concerns of critics of so-called independent expenditure campaigns, which are not subject to limits on what they can lay out to support or oppose candidates.
"You don't know who's doing this and, in this case, not even what they are spending," Bowler said.
Campaign officials for Aguilar and Reyes denounced the secret spending. Mark Warren, campaign manager for Reyes, called it "appalling" and a "shadow campaign trying to buy a congressional seat." Boris Medzhibovsky of the Aguilar campaign said the group "doesn't appear to be playing by the rules, and Joe Baca is benefiting from their failure to disclose who they are and where they got this money."
Baca has been a controversial figure. In 2007, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which he then chaired, saying he called her a "whore." Baca denied it. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's heavy spending over Baca's opposition to gun control helped lead to his 2012 defeat.
Baca said his views are in line with those of district voters.
Merl reported from Los Angeles, Simon from Washington.