The political mailers piled up at David Rowan's Paso Robles home this spring as nine different candidates sought to escape the June primary for a shot at replacing retiring Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.
One flier stood out to Rowan, a 69-year-old Republican and semi-retired private investigator.
The shiny pamphlet was sent by an Austin, Texas, group called Citizen Super PAC in support of 28-year-old GOP candidate Justin Fareed. Rowan shot off a letter to the local paper in March upset with what he saw as the mailer's overly broad promises.
But another question lingered in Rowan's head as the primary went on and the group's spending rose — $310,000 so far on mailers and a television ad to support Fareed. Who was behind Citizen Super PAC?
The answer requires digging into the $1.5 million that was spent by super PACs and nonprofit groups like the Texas organization to influence voters in the primary.
It is an especially tough task in California's 24th Congressional District due to the sheer magnitude of the spending: Only five Congressional races in the country so far this election cycle have seen more money from outside groups, according to rankings by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that tracks spending in federal races.
Groups with ties to both parties were lured to the open House race and a slew of candidates competing in a somewhat unpredictable primary system where the two highest vote-getters — regardless of party — could advance to the general election.
The names voters will see on the ballot this fall belong to the two people who benefited the most from outside spending: Fareed, a former Capitol Hill staffer, and Democratic Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal.
Most of the outside money, about $828,000, was spent by two well-known Democratic groups — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC — on Carbajal's behalf.
That the money flowed to Carbajal instead of the other prominent Democrat in the race, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, is not surprising. Carbajal spent years climbing the ranks of local Democratic politics and had the backing of Capps along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"There is a great deal at stake," Pelosi told The Times about the race earlier this spring. "This is not a foregone-conclusion Democratic district. And we have to win that district."
More surprising was that national Democrats stepped in so early to spend, a reflection of lessons learned since the top-two primary first started throwing political handicappers for a loop in 2012.
That year political insiders were stunned when two Republicans knocked Redlands mayor and Democratic favorite Pete Aguilar out of the top-two primary in an Inland Empire House race. Democrats had a 5 percentage-point advantage among voters in that race but split the blue vote between four candidates.
The party was not looking to be Aguilared again.
"It is clear that nobody is going to be caught napping in 2016," Carbajal's political consultant Doug Herman, who also worked for Aguilar at the time, told The Times just before his candidate captured 31.9% of the vote in the primary. Fareed won 20.5% of the vote, besting Republican state Assemblyman K.H. "Katcho" Achadjian by just 2 percentage points, or 4,805 votes.
The source of the funds Citizen Super PAC spent on behalf of Fareed is hard to trace because the group functions as a sort of shell for other donors. The group has accepted six-figure checks from nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors, other political committees, one of the country's largest coal companies and well-heeled individuals.
The Texas group supported Republicans in House and U.S. Senate races around the country, including more than $370,000 to support the reelection bids of Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.
Chris Gober, one of the group's founders and a former Republican National Committee staffer, described Citizen Super PAC as "a plug-and-play committee for donors to fund the specific projects" without having to set up a new group. He did not respond when asked which groups wanted their contributions spent on supporting Fareed's campaign.
One group, a pro-Fareed political action committee in San Rafael, Calif. called New Generation, transferred $129,790 to Citizen Super PAC shortly before disbanding in January. New Generation received $100,000 from the coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp. in October of 2015, as well as $29,800 from two Los Angeles medical companies whose executives had already contributed the maximum allowed to Fareed's primary campaign coffers.
"It is a textbook example of how you can use PACs and Super PACs," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in election law. "It is a great way to mask your donors or just raise money. You have to dive down a couple of levels to see who is really behind anything."
Citizen Super PAC paid for a round of mailers supporting Fareed in the spring. Next the group launched a May TV and radio blitz shortly after receiving $150,000 from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to "strengthening the Republican Majority" in Congress, and $40,000 from Murray Energy Corp. That was on May 24 and May 26.
On May 25, right between those two contributions, the Fareed campaign YouTube account posted seven minutes of silent footage featuring the candidate speaking with people in a parking lot. Some of the shots appeared in an ad paid for by Citizen Super PAC shown on May 27. The group ended up spending $132,000 on the ad as well as a radio aired the same day.
A spokeswoman for the Congressional Leadership Fund did not return a request for comment about the Fareed contribution. A spokesman for the coal company said the $40,000 donation was intended for multiple Republican candidates, including Fareed.
Murray Energy was investigated by the Federal Elections Commission over allegations made by anonymous employees in The New Republic that Murray's company had coerced workers to contribute to candidates during the 2012 cycle. The commission decided not to pursue charges in May after it deadlocked on a vote.
Murray met the candidate when Fareed worked at a staffer for Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield from 2012 to 2013, according to company spokesman Gary Broadbent. Whitfield, who resigned from Congress this month after the House Ethics Committee found he gave his lobbyist wife inappropriate access to his staff, also was beneficiary of $17,000 in contributions from Murray and his company in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Mr. Murray is proud to support those candidates who work to protect and defend the United States coal industry, and the jobs and livelihoods that depend on it, and affordable and reliable electricity for all Americans," Broadbent said in a statement. "Mr. Fareed is one such candidate and Mr. Murray is proud to support him."
On his campaign website, Fareed uses broad generalities to laud California's natural resources. He says he supports reducing dependence on foreign oil, and includes the standard Republican line he prefers an "all of the above" energy policy. He does not specifically mention coal or any other energy source, only that he supports a "balanced approach, including the use of renewable resources" and moving "over time" toward a "more decarbonized future."
On paper, Fareed has a tough road to victory in November: Democrats have a six-point voter registration advantage in the district and down-ballot Democrats tend to do well there in presidential election years.
Fareed had $293,492 in the bank while Carbajal had $541,664 in cash on hand, according to FEC records filed in July.
The National Republican Congressional Committee and a nonprofit group called the American Action Network spent a combined $377,000 to oppose Carbajal and Schneider. The money was used in part for ads linking Schneider to Vermont. Sen. Bernie Sanders that some local Democrats saw as an effort to dilute the Democratic vote.
Rowan, the Republican voter in Paso Robles who got Citizen Super PAC's mailer, did not end up voting for Fareed or Carbajal. He chose Republican candidate Matt Kokkonen, someone he said "sounded like a real person."
He said he was wary of Fareed and the role of outside groups in the race, which ultimately cost $5.5 million between campaign and outside group sending. It is the seventh most expensive in the country so far this cycle.
"I didn't realize it that he had such a machine behind him until later," Rowand said. "Clearly he had a lot of money behind him. Who is trying to buy this guy, what do they want? People don't invest that kind of money without some kind of payback."