Tired of exporting campaign cash, these politicos are putting California first

A familiar sight: Air Force One departing California in February 2016 after another successful fundraising foray. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California feeds the world with its bounty, fuels the economy with its innovation, fires the imagination with its creativity.

There is one export, though, that is far less celebrated: the unceasing torrent of outbound campaign cash.

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For political fundraisers, California has long been the Big Rock Candy Mountain, excavated, mined and, ultimately, shafted by candidates of both parties who use the boodle to run for president in Iowa or New Hampshire, or Congress in East Podunk.

In the last election cycle alone, nearly $800 million was raised in California, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tallies federal contributions of $200 or more. (Given the massive success of Bernie Sanders' insurgent small-dollar fundraising, the amount was doubtless even higher.)

While it's impossible to say how much of that California money was spent within the state, it's fair to assume — given the lopsided nature of most congressional contests — it was a small fraction.

Now Democratic efforts are underway to put California first, directing more campaign cash whence it came by focusing on seven targeted House districts in the Central Valley and the southern part of the state.

The party needs to pick up 24 seats to win control of the House in 2018. A significant investment close to home, the argument goes, could help Democrats a good distance toward that goal — it's hard to see them taking control without picking up seats in California — and give donors in the state a more tangible stake in the midterm elections.

"We don't mind helping other people," said Michael Eggman, who founded a political action committee, Red to Blue California, to steer money into the seven districts. "But now there's an effort to ensure their hard-earned dollars make a difference in their own communities. Or if not their own communities, their aunt's backyard in Bakersfield or their daughter's backyard in San Diego."

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Eggman, a farmer and beekeeper by trade, twice tried unsuccessfully to unseat Republican Rep.Jeff Denham of Turlock, one of the targeted seven. (All represent districts that voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton; nationwide there were 23 Republican lawmakers elected in districts carried by the Democratic nominee.)

The intention, Eggman said, is to raise and spend $1 million in each of the seven California districts, not just on congressional contests but on races for city councils, boards of supervisors and other down-ballot offices. "The idea is to target the best opportunities," he said, "and start putting the pieces in place."

The long-range goal, very much in vogue among Democrats these days, is building the party infrastructure and a bench of candidates to ultimately take over some of the few remaining GOP sanctuaries in California. "We're in it," Eggman vowed, "for the long haul."

Along with Denham, the targeted Republican lawmakers are Hanford's David Valadao, Palmdale's Steve Knight, Fullerton's Ed Royce, Irvine's Mimi Walters, Costa Mesa's Dana Rohrabacher and Vista's Darrell Issa.

Operating on a separate but parallel track, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher has launched Fight Back California, which has the same political designs but a different approach.

Rather than advertising or campaign contributions, Tauscher's political action committee plans to invest in research, door-to-door canvassing and other spadework intended to soften up the GOP lawmakers and learn what ticket-splitters — voters who simultaneously backed Clinton and their Republican member of Congress — have on their minds.

"We want to understand what matters to them and what it would take for them to vote for a Democrat," said the committee's chief strategist, Katie Merrill. "The idea is to make sure whoever [is] nominated on June 6, 2018, will have a level playing field when they come out of the primary."

As sure as the sun sets over the Sierra, California will always export more money — both campaign cash and tax dollars — than it receives. It will never enjoy the clout, especially in presidential politics, many here feel the most populous and impactful state in the country deserves.

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Tauscher, who represented the East Bay suburbs for 12 years, is realistic. She doesn't want or expect California donors to pull back from national politics or slam their checkbooks shut when out-of-state candidates come calling. "Give," she said, "but also help out in these seven races."

John Stewart, a Democratic donor in San Francisco, is one of her enthusiastic adherents, kicking in $100,000 to get Tauscher's operation up and running.

Over the years he's written $5,000 and $10,000 checks for candidates in Maryland, Hawaii and New Hampshire, among other states. "I'm happy to contribute," he said, finding reward in the chance to help shape national politics from his home on Telegraph Hill.

But seizing control of the House by focusing on his own state? Priceless.

@markzbarabak on Twitter

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